“My fellow Micronesians,” a proud David Panuelo, President of the Federated States of Micronesia said last month, “A black cloud has disappeared from the Pacific.”
Panuelo was referring to the deal struck between three Micronesian leaders and three Polynesian leaders – the Suva Agreement – that was tipped to end the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) dispute about which region the next PIF Secretary General should come from and a threat by Micronesian members to withdraw.
However now, as Pacific leaders gather to meet in Fiji this week, that hope for Micronesia to “almost certainly” remain in the forum appears dashed. Kiribati, at least, has chosen not to participate.
The dispute stretching over the past 18 months was in response to the perceived breaking of a handshake agreement that a Micronesian leader would become the next PIF Secretary General, only for former Cook Islands prime minister Henry Puna to instead win the post. The Suva Agreement set out that Puna would remain in the job until 2024, at which point a Micronesian leader would take the helm. A rotational leadership across the three regions of Micronesia, Melanesia and Polynesia would also be enshrined into the PIF rules following the July leaders’ meeting. The agreement would see a new PIF office set up in a Micronesian country and the position of the Pacific Ocean Commissioner moved to Micronesia.
Panuelo was optimistic, saying the negotiations had “collectively found a way to keep our Pacific family unified, to make it stronger against external and internal pressures”.
Yet at the eleventh hour – just days before the first face-to-face Pacific leaders’ summit since the pandemic – that regional unity started to crumble again.
Despite the absences, and the risk that the stand-off over the Secretary General’s position will overshadow talks in Fiji, there will be some Pacific political heavyweights in attendance.
Over the weekend, Kiribati President Taneti Maamau sent a letter to Puna indicating his nation would not support the Suva Agreement and he was withdrawing Kiribati from the forum. Both domestic and subregional politics factor into Maamau’s response. His emphasis, however, was standing up for principles: that all matters in the Micronesian subregion and at the PIF must be dealt with from a position of equality, equity and inclusion, and as a caucus.
Kiribati is not the only nation unable to participate in this meeting. Of the Micronesian members, Marshall Islands failed to rescind legislatively binding action that withdrew the country from the regional organisation. Marshall Islands President David Kabua said domestic politics derailed efforts to unwind the resolution, although he’d wanted to participate. Nauru’s President Lionel Aingimea will also not attend (his nation is experiencing a Covid-19 outbreak).
Meanwhile, Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown will remain at home ahead of a national election in three weeks.
Despite the absences, and the risk that the stand-off over the Secretary General’s position will overshadow talks in Fiji, there will be some Pacific political heavyweights in attendance. With Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama as Chair, Samoa’s first female Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mata’afa will attend, along with Solomon Islands’ Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. US Vice President Kamala Harris will also deliver a virtual address to the forum that will signal the United States’ intention to work more collaboratively with the Pacific.
The forum Chair, Bainimarama, said the week-long summit provides an opportunity to celebrate five decades of Pacific regionalism. But importantly, he said it’s a time for reflection on “what it means to work together”. Given all that has happened in recent months and days – with China’s offers of a new regional security architecture and PIF members not able to participate in the forum – these moments of reflection on unity and solidarity will carry more weight.
Geopolitics and regional security, including China’s role as a major player in the region and its proposed common development vision for the Pacific, will weave into many discussions.
Kiribati’s exit from the PIF and its impact on the regional architecture will be discussed as a matter of importance this week. Just as pressing will be climate change, including the declaration of a climate emergency at the Forum Foreign Ministers’ meeting last week, the preservation of maritime zones, and the endorsement of Vanuatu’s bid to advance a request for a legal opinion from the International Court of Justice on climate change. As a new player on the scene, Albanese will also be keen to mark his difference from the previous Morrison government, particularly on environmental policy.
The forum meetings in Suva will culminate with the launch of the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent, developed over three years in consultation with the region. Other priorities will include Covid-19 and economic recovery, and there will likely also be talks about nuclear waste legacy issues. Last month, the inaugural PIF Women Leaders’ meeting was held, and it is hoped that this forum leaders’ meeting will respond to the loud and clear message from Fiame Naomi Mata’afa that more action is needed to reach gender equality across the region.
Geopolitics and regional security, including China’s role as a major player in the region and its proposed common development vision for the Pacific, will weave into many discussions. This will include how to prepare for, and respond to as a region, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi when he returns with a revamped regional agreement under his arm.
And when the clouds collide, whether on China or if disputes about leadership and membership continue to plague the PIF’s reunification attempts, the key will be maintaining face-to-face diplomacy between all Pacific Island states – regardless of membership in the PIF – to ensure that the region continues to do business in the way it knows best: as a family, and through consensus.