Digital Snapshot

by Eva U Wagner

PACIFIC ISLANDS FORUM – Regionalism in Crisis

Digital Snapshot #3/21

A potpourri of current affairs topics from Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific brought to you by KAS Australia and the Pacific. The weekly digital snapshot showcases selected media and think tank articles to provide a panorama view and analysis of the debate in these countries.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in these articles do not necessarily reflect KAS Australia’s position. Rather, they have been selected to present an overview of the various topics and perspectives which have been dominating the public and political debate in Australia and the Pacific region.

Since 2014, the Pacific Islands Forum’s work is guided by the Framework for Regionalism, which sets out the strategic vision, values, objectives and approaches to achieve deeper integration in the region. The Framework defines regionalism as:

The expression of a common sense of identity and purpose, leading progressively to the sharing of institutions, resources and markets, with the purpose of complementing national efforts, overcoming common constraints and embracing sustainable and inclusive development within Pacific countries and territories and for the Pacific region as a whole.

Triggered by the election of the Forum’s new secretary general, this understanding of regionalism is currently in crisis. So, what happened?

The Forum’s new head was scheduled to be selected by consensus at the Forum Leaders’ Meeting in August 2020. There were five candidates for the top job nominated last year, namely Henry Puna (Cook Islands), Ratu Inoke Kubuabola (Fiji), Gerald Zackios (Marshall Islands), Dr Jimmie Rodgers (Solomon Islands) and Amelia Kinahoi Siamomua (Tonga) (see KAS AusPacific Digital Snapshot #25/20 – Wakelet).

In June 2020, Vanuatu announced it would postpone the meeting with a view to both the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the effects of a tropical cyclone. The selection took ultimately place during the Forum’s Special Leaders’ Retreat held via video conference in the beginning of February this year. The Retreat was attended by the respective heads of state, with one exception. New Zealand was represented not by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern but by Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta. The Leaders could, however, not reach a consensus as they would usually do (the ‘Pacific way’, also known as ‘talanoa’, described as inclusive, participatory and transparent dialogue), and the appointment process went to a vote instead. After three elimination rounds, a final round was held during which Henry Puna, the Cook Islands’ former prime minister, was elected by nine to eight votes, with one abstention.

The result came as a blow to the Forum’s five Micronesian member states (Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru and Palau), who insist that as per an unwritten agreement on sub-regional rotation, it was their turn to chair the Forum. Indeed, the outgoing secretary general (Dame Meg Taylor from Papua New Guinea) is Melanesian, and her predecessor (Tuiloma Neroni Slade from Samoa) is Polynesian. In response to the election, Palau announced it would close its embassy in Suva and quit the Forum. A few days later, the five Micronesian Presidents held a virtual meeting and issued a joint Communiqué stating that “there is no value in participating in an organisation that does not respect established agreements” and announcing their “intent to initiate the formal process of withdrawing from the Pacific Islands Forum”.

There is little known about the reasons for the election of Henry Puna over his competitors. What we do know is that the Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea (PNG), James Marape, voted for Gerald Zackios. The Economist writes that Australia encouraged Forum members to disregard the convention on rotation but does not offer any further details (see edition of 13 February 2021). The Lowy Institute notes that the Micronesian bid was complicated inter alia by the appointment of the Marshall Islands’ Filimon Manoni as Deputy Secretary General in May last year, and that the Forum’s senior leadership positions were never before occupied by nationals of the same member state. The election of a male candidate also means that all three leadership positions, namely that of the secretary general and his two deputies, are now taken by men. This, we are told, represents a significant departure from five years ago, when half of the senior executive positions, including the secretary general and her two deputies, were occupied by women.

Looking ahead, what does this mean for the region? While the region may for various reasons never have been a closely integrated bloc, the Pacific Islands Forum provides its members with the opportunity to discuss matters of common concern, including trade, security and climate change. This, in turn, promotes regionalism and enables the member states to set their own regional agenda. If the Micronesian member states were to exit from the Forum, it would arguably create even more space for China and the United States to pursue their respective agenda in the region. China’s efforts to date, for example, resulted in the Solomon Islands and Kiribati to cut their ties with Taiwan, and to side with China, in 2019 (see KAS AusPacific Digital Snapshot #15/19 – Wakelet). In response, the United States have reportedly pledged aid to the Solomon Islands’ Province of Malaita as it sought an independence referendum over the country’s foreign policy. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic, if anything, has further incited these players’ proxy war in the region.

According to Palau’s President Surangel Whipps, the Polynesian and Melanesian nations’ vote has divided the Pacific. This leads to the question if and how the division may be avoided. It appears unlikely that PIF’s newly elect secretary general would resign, or take turns with Gerald Zackios by resigning half-way through his term and leaving the floor to the Micronesian candidate. PNG’s PM Marape suggested that PIF reviews its charter and processes to ensure it is relevant and covers areas such as a sub-regional balance in its structure and functions. Following a motion by Fiji’s Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, the Fijian Parliament’s Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence was tasked to review the 2005 Agreement on the Establishment of the Pacific Islands Forum, and to issue a report within 30 days. Third party mediation, whether under the PIF’s 2000 Biketawa Declaration or otherwise agreed, may provide another avenue to overcome the crisis.

According to the Cook Islands News, Henry Puna will take up his new position in April this year. He will have to prove himself as a great leader in order to restore harmony in the Pacific again. If he fails, the effects may be felt not only in this region but globally – just like the flap of a butterfly’s wings … .