A few months ago I stood on a beach in Tarawa, the most populous of islands comprising the Micronesian nation of Kiribati. It's long and thin sliver of land where you can walk from one side of the island to the other in minutes. It has a population density up to twice that of Sydney or New York, but only a fraction of their infrastructure and economic opportunities.

A crowd waiting for the opening ceremony of Pacific Island Forum 2010 in Vanuatu.

As I watched the villagers cast their nets in the lagoon to eke out a subsistence living, it struck me that one really needs to come to a place like Kiribati to understand the sheer range of challenges facing regional cooperation across the Pacific, but also the absolute necessity for such cooperation if the Pacific Island states are to have a brighter future in the 21st century.

Europe and the Pacific have had different histories, faced different challenges, and – not surprisingly – developed different collective responses in the form of the European Union and the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF). There is little doubt that successful regionalism is easier to achieve where population density, economic development and not to mention close physical proximity, make for a certain critical mass. If anything, however, sparse population, vast distances and limited resources make closer regional cooperation a necessity rather than a luxury for the Pacific. Europe could arguably survive and prosper without the EU, as it had done in the past, but it is difficult to imagine Pacific Island states thriving in isolation.

And while there may never be a Pacific Union, that does not mean Australia's Pacific neighbours should not be exploring enhanced ways of working together. 

Australia was a founding member of key regional organisations like the PIF, but also the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC, formerly the South Pacific Commission), the Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA) and the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP). Foreign Minister Julie Bishop made it clear that we will continue to play an active role in the region; it is after all our home, and the Pacific Island states are among our closest neighbours. But we should not – and, indeed, will not – drive the regional agenda or try to impose any particular vision on the region. We will, however, continue to encourage and assist where we are needed and wanted because we know from our own experience that cooperation and collaboration works, and we know it can deliver more for the people of the Pacific as it has for other parts of the world.

Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of visiting the Fiji campus of the University of the South Pacific, perhaps the best example of practical regionalism in action. The USP is jointly owned by the governments of 12 Pacific countries and it maintains a presence in all of them. In large part thanks to advanced information and communication technology, the University can provide quality tertiary education throughout an area three times the size of Europe. It shows what Pacific countries can do together, and something they would not have been able to do with nearly as much success if pursued separately.

The Forum Fisheries Agency is another much-touted example of successful collective action. Tuna, after all, is a migratory species that doesn't respect national boundaries. Management and conservation can only work as collective efforts, lest one of the Pacific's greatest natural resources falls victim to 'the tragedy of the commons'.

There are many other areas where the countries of the Pacific could benefit from the economies of scale and resource pooling that only closer regionalism can create. Procurement, transport, telecommunications, customs, standardisation of commercial laws and institutions have all been mentioned in the past as areas which could benefit from collective attention by island states, though there are many others. This perhaps is one of the problems; the spectre of too many potential opportunities can blur the focus and sap will and initiative.

None of these concerns are new, and there is a widespread perception that regional cooperation in the Pacific has, to some extent, stalled in recent years at the same time as an ever growing range of challenges faces the region. The 2005 Pacific Plan, the original master strategy for driving regionalism, was itself subjected to a comprehensive review in 2013 under the leadership of former PNG Prime Minister Sir Mekere Morauta. At the PIF Leaders' Forum held in Palau in July 2014, leaders agreed on a new Framework for Pacific Regionalism to replace the Pacific Plan, which was criticised for having become more a development document than a strategic plan for regional cooperation. The new Framework commits PIF members to advance beyond regional cooperation towards deeper forms of regional integration. It also creates mechanisms to enable leaders to better prioritise issues.

Arguably, it is better to focus on a small number of truly regional challenges and address them effectively than risk getting bogged down in an attempt to fix everything at once.

Whatever top priorities Pacific leaders choose to focus on, it makes eminent sense to seek regional responses to regional issues. The Pacific faces many of the same development challenges as other parts of the world, but they are uniquely compounded and complicated by the human and natural geography of the region.

By and large, the island states, particularly Pacific micro-states, are simply too small and too remote to succeed on their own. With some economic estimates indicating that by 2015 the Pacific will constitute the slowest-growing region of the world, there is a clear and urgent need for a new approach. The new PIF Secretary-General, PNG's Dame Meg Taylor, will have her hands full. But, as Pacific leaders themselves acknowledge, in our increasingly integrated and interconnected world, the status quo is no longer an option.

Photo courtesy of Josephine Latu.