By Mar-Vic Cagurangan
A fractured bloc: What’s next for Pacific Island Forum?
It’s not just a matter of fairness; it’s also a matter of principle and honoring a handshake. State leaders of the subregional members of Pacific Islands Forum last year threatened to break from the bloc if their turn to select the next secretary general was passed over. It would be a “joke” to stay with the Forum if that happened, Tommy Remengesau, then-president of Palau, said in October last year.
Hence the temperamental response from five Micronesian countries when the Forum leaders shunned their candidate, Marshall Islands diplomat Gerald Zackios in favor of former Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna, who won a ballot by one vote.
Palau, Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati and Nauru have notified Fiji, the Forum’s host, of their exit from the bloc. Palau and FSM officially began their withdrawal process on Feb. 17, marking the one-year delinking period that goes into effect on Feb. 14, 2022.
The five Micronesian nations represented 30 percent of the 50-year-old Forum’s 18 member countries.
"You cannot have a functional regional organization that just completely disregards a third of its membership," Palau President Surangel Whiips Jr. said. “All five Micronesian countries said they would leave the Forum if it continued to ignore them. So now we are doing exactly what we said."
In a separate statement, Nauru President Lionel Aingimea said, "The forum has lost its original intent to be a regional body."
Under the terms of “gentlemen’s agreement,” the position of secretary-general should rotate among the sub-regions, and this was Micronesians’ turn.
“The consensus principle was broken and so this means that the Forum now has to re-adjust itself ethically, morally and politically in terms of facing the future now that one of their fundamental principles had been broken,” FSM President David Panuelo said.
Transform Aqorau, a legal adviser to Marshall Islands, said the rest of the region may have underestimated Micronesia’s position and as a result, the forum now has a “totally unprecedented situation” to deal with.
Puna will officially assume the Forum’s helm in April, succeeding Meg Taylor, who has been holding the post since 2014. Zackios gracefully congratulated Puna on his selection but warned that Pacific regionalism would suffer from the Forum’s action. “We have honestly struggled to take our homegrown priorities into the larger organization, we are often shunted off into smaller states grouping, the small island states, whose outcomes generally don’t easily see the light of day,” he said.
The regional split occurs as the Forum marks its golden anniversary. Founded in 1971, the Forum was established by Pacific leaders who were denied a space to talk politics by the colonial powers in what was then the South Pacific Commission (now the Pacific Community. Member countries include Australia and New Zealand. The Forum is run by a Suva-based secretariat.
According to the Forum’s website, its Pacific vision is “for a region of peace, harmony, security, social inclusion and prosperity, so that all Pacific people can lead free, healthy, and productive lives.” The Forum says it “works to achieve this by fostering cooperation between governments, collaboration with international agencies and by representing the interests of its members.”
The regional political grouping is more significant than it seems. It covers a boundless, resource rich, highly strategic zone, where a geopolitical conflict between China and the United States is at play. The U.S. military’s Indo-Pacific Island Strategy centers on securing this part of the world to thwart Beijing’s expansion attempts. China has been splashing investments in small Pacific island nations and Australia is also hard at work to keep the Communist nation at bay.
If not resolved, the regional crisis “could lead to aircraft carrier-sized cracks the West’s Indo-Pacific defenses, including along the strategically crucial first and second island chains,” Cleo Paskal is non-resident senior fellow for the Indo-Pacific at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, write in the Feb. 10 issue of The Diplomat.
The Forum also serves as a venue where island nations collectively deal with threats of climate change, illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing in the region, as well as their resolve to keep a nuclear-free Pacific under the Rarotonga Treaty.
The five Micronesia countries have 12 months to reconsider their decision— if they will. As of this writing, Nauru, which is among the pioneering members, and Kiribati have not started their withdrawal process.
But for FSM, there is no turning back. “It would take a very monumental reform of the [PIF], in my humble opinion, for us to be able to come back to the table to discuss future options,” Panuelo told Forum chairman Kausea Natano, who joined the Micronesian Presidents Summit’s meeting on Feb. 17
Natano, who is also Tuvalu prime minister, said he was saddened by the Micronesian exit but maintained that the Forum’s leaders remain united despite their differences.
"All the leaders were very strong in their support for the new secretary-general," Natano said in an interview with Radio New Zealand. "Some of the presidents of the Micronesian groups were in the final part of the meeting and they were very strong in their support for the solidarity of the region."
Prior to the leadership conflict, the Forum has been plagued with resentments from the subregional members, according to Dr Steven Ratuva, director of the Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies at the University of Canterbury. “One is the criticisms of the small island states that there had been bit of domination by big countries like Australia and New Zealand – that they had money, the political power, economic leverage and other means of domination and this had created a bit of anxiety within the forum itself,” the Fiji Times quotes Ratuva as saying.
The imbalance of benefits is another issue, he said. “Some of them had argued that some of the regional projects, like Air Pacific for instance, were original, and had become nationalised by Fiji.”
Like the United Nations, the Forum makes rules based on consensus. “The problem with consensus is that if you have one or two powerful voices, whatever they said everyone would agree, especially when they have money and power,” Ratuva said. “This has been one of the problems. This came to a head when they had to decide on the next secretary-general.”
But whether unwritten or written, Panuelo said a gentlemen’s agreement is non-negotiable. This is the Pacific Way of doing things, he said. The Forum’s solidarity, he said, is strengthened by such a pact. “The issue is one of respect and unity,” he said. “We said that we see no benefit to remaining in the Pacific Islands Forum if that gentleman’s agreement is not abided by.”
During the MPS Feb. 17 meeting, much of the discussion focused on the impact of quitting the bloc. Will it affect their chances at receiving assistance from donor countries, they wondered.
But they concluded that their decision will not result in a loss of foreign funding. Panuelo said multiple countries that otherwise donate to the Forum are now seeking closer bilateral relations with individual nations. In the end, they agreed that all is not lost. Leaving the bloc, he concluded, is advantageous.