It has been a disastrous week for Pacific regionalism. The controversial appointment of Henry Puna as Secretary General in a 9-8 vote in last week’s special Leaders Meeting has splintered the Pacific Islands Forum, with five Micronesian states following through on their threat to leave the Forum if their candidate wasn’t appointed. Further complicating matters, Fiji appears to have used the distraction of the meeting to swoop in and deport University of South Pacific Vice Chancellor Pal Ahluwalia.
The result of these moves is a region more bitterly divided than at any time in recent history. The North is angry with the South. Everyone is angry at Fiji. Australia and New Zealand are copping it for doing too much – or not enough – depending on whom you talk to. Until temperatures can cool, Pacific regionalism is going to be at best in hibernation and at worst on life support.
Why does this all matter? What can be done to extract the region from the aftermath of this avoidable crisis and hopefully bring Micronesia back into the fold?
The Pacific Islands Forum is the region’s leading political and economic multilateral organisation, responsible for enabling cooperation and collaboration within its member states, and between its member states and the rest of the world. The Forum can be maligned for being a schedule of endless meetings and wasted bureaucracy, delivering bland communiqués that do little to guide domestic policy.
Such criticisms obscure and discredit the marked achievements the Forum has made in its 50-year history on a range of issues including nuclear testing and non-proliferation, regional security, fisheries management and climate change. Through its priority on finding consensus agreement, the region has been able to speak globally on these issues with a vastly outsized voice.
The Forum has also made great strides in reshaping perceptions of the region. Through the regionally adopted “Blue Pacific” narrative, Pacific nations are assertively reshaping the image of the region from one of remoteness and fragility to being resilient custodians of a vast ocean continent.
Through its priority on finding consensus agreement, the region has been able to speak globally on a range of issues with a vastly outsized voice.
There are far deeper intangibles to Pacific regionalism enshrined in the Forum. The Forum embodies many of the values of “Talanoa” – storytelling that leads to consensus-building and decision-making – something that is deeply enshrined in many Pacific cultures. The idea of the Forum helps to nurture threads of cultural connection and shared identity that are felt deeply in all corners of the Pacific from Niue to Nauru. For many nations, the first step was independence and the second was joining the Forum on the path to sovereignty and agency.
It is for all these reasons that the Forum matters for the Pacific, and for Australia. Furthermore, the forum elevates Australia (and New Zealand) and gives them privileged status with the Pacific. As members, both can build political relationships in the region to the exclusion of other external players. While Australia may chafe at a robust and outspoken Forum – it’ll never get a pass on climate change – it is in Australia’s interest to have a Forum that is functioning much better than what we see today. If anything, the current drama is a distraction from the extreme challenges facing the region ranging from the economic fallout of Covid-19 to intensifying geostrategic competition.
So where to from here? A Forum without Micronesia will be greatly diminished. While accounting for only 3% of the region’s population, the five Micronesian nations provide close to a third of the Forum’s membership. Unity was core to the Forum’s strength, and the region’s voice on the global stage will be significantly muted without the presence of these small island nations. The Forum itself will be hamstrung for years to come at a time in the age of Zoom, where it needs desperately to retain its relevance.
The first step, for all members, will be to take their time and to listen. Temperatures are high and will need to come down. Perspectives need to be listened to and frustrations aired. The instinct, particularly from Canberra, will be to act swiftly, but the damage from the past week may take years to repair.
Next will be reconciliation and compromise. The Micronesian states can’t be expected to simply climb down from their position, having made good on their threat to break away. Their grievances should be recognised, and greater efforts should be made to make their voices heard in the Forum. This may involve structural reform at the PIF, including dispute settling mechanisms and election processes, as well as formalisation of what had previously been considered a “gentleman’s agreement” on subregional representation in leadership positions and ironclad agreements on the next Secretary General.
According to the 2005 Forum agreement, the process to leave takes a year to complete, so leaders have some time to try to sort this out before the departure of the North Pacific is finalised. Transform Aqorau has his own valuable suggestions on what reforms are needed.
The wild card in all of this is Fiji. Its government has now inherited the position of Chair of the Pacific Islands Forum, and it is adamant a leaders meeting should take place in Suva in August. While Fiji will no doubt want to keep the focus front and centre on climate change, it has the opportunity to shape a potential meeting around regional reconciliation. To do that, the Fiji First government will need to face its own demons with regard to USP, accepting it not as a national institution but a fundamental regional entity, and empowering the USP Council to enact reforms at the executive level.
A final tragedy of the past week is that it casts a pall over what should have been a celebration of the tenure of a fine Secretary General, Dame Meg Taylor, who has blazed a trail throughout her entire career and will leave a lasting and significant legacy on the Forum and its Secretariat.