For decades, islanders in the Pacific have been enthralled by concepts of regional unity and regional action. Beginning with the emergence of South Pacific Island nations, we were inspired by conversations about a unique, Pacific Way of doing things. This involved consensus and consultation much like we imagined how our traditional leaders moved a community forward.
The idea of a regional identity became synonymous with the South Pacific Commission and eventually the Pacific Island Forum. The addition of the independent nations from our part of the world with the FSM, Palau and the Marshall Islands gave it a very pan-Pacific flavor as the Micronesians made their presence known.
The Forum started a process in 2018 which would lead to a 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent. The Blue Continent became a conceptual framework through which we could triangulate ideas and ideals about our island greatness and regional cooperation.
The theme for last year’s UOG Center for Island Sustainability Conference was “Island Wisdom for a Global Future.” This reflected growing small island connections worldwide. We would tackle inequalities and climate change and directly deal with the “drivers of change.” The Blue Continent strategy was to be completed this year.
Instead, the Blue Continent revealed a great “continental divide” and it wasn’t a range of mountains like the Rocky Mountains in North America. It was an imaginary line called the equator and the Forum members from north of the equator began the process of leaving the Forum. Micronesia was getting out of the house whereas a few decades ago, they were announcing that they were in the house. Now, the three freely associated states along with Nauru and Kiribati were engaging in Micrexit.
This departure was precipitated by the violation of the Forum of a “gentleman’s agreement” (European words describing a Pacific Way) to allow each sub-regional part of the Forum to have their turn as the Secretary-General of the Forum. Up for consideration was Ambassador Gerald Zackios of the Marshall Islands, a long-time friend. I even spoke to him when I was in Washington D.C. in January and I wished him well. We talked about Guam’s participation in the future.
The Forum met and selected Henry Puna of the Cook Islands over our fellow Micronesian Zackios by a vote of 9-8. The vote was democratic, but by secret ballot. It seemed to violate our sense of the Pacific Way especially since there were only 17 participants. Why didn’t they just talk it out the way islanders are supposed to? I guess they can give the Covid-19 excuse for not extensive deliberation.
Immediately, the North Pacific members met and agreed to pull out of the Forum with deliberate fanfare and flare. This was in fulfillment of Palau President Remengesau’s ultimatum issued last September that if Zackios wasn’t selected, Palau would pull out.
It was pretty obvious that the Marshall Islands would be disappointed, but the statements of newly elected Palau President Whipps Jr. and FSM President Panuelo were no less committed. Whipps intimated that “South Pacific bias” was at work and that it could be remedied by the inclusion of more members from north of the equator like Guam and the Northern Marianas. Panuelo’s statement was labeled a “denunciation” in a strongly worded press release announcing that the FSM starts the process of withdrawal today. Under existing Forum rules, this will take one year to complete.
Academics must speak and they have. Dr. Tara Kabutaulaka of the Center for Pacific Island Studies at the University of Hawaii expressed his disappointment. He hopes for more “people to people” relationships which go beyond regional organizations. Dr. Damon Salesa, the head of Pacific Studies at the University of Auckland advises us to stop thinking of “nesias” as in Polynesia, Melanesia or Micronesia. He also hinted that maybe it is time for the twin giants of Australia and New Zealand to take a backseat in Forum affairs. Amen, Damon.
The people of Guam can only stand by and watch because we aren’t members of the Forum although we could be. We could apply for membership in the same way New Caledonia and French Polynesia have. They are now members. Wallis and Futuna, another French territory, is under consideration and there has always been talk about American Samoa joining the Forum.
Under such a scenario, who knows what blocs may emerge. There could be the American-affiliated divide in addition to the equator. If Hawaii is given some kind of role, the Polynesian network will be unchallenged in future regional activities. But that is “nesia” thinking which we must avoid according to Salesa.
Tuvalu Prime Minister Natano has indicated that there may be changes in the selection process. He invited the Micronesian leaders who met on Feb. 8 to remain engaged. Panuelo reportedly replied that while he appreciated the diplomatic outreach, their trust in the Forum was “fractured.”
It takes a year to formally leave the organization. Each of the five Micronesian members have internal processes to go through, but no one thinks there is much opposition to Micrexit within any of the Micronesian nations. Micrexit is real and it is deep. Will they go through the twists and turns in the upcoming year experienced by the United Kingdom when they planned their exit from the European Union?
Not exactly. The five nations still plan to remain engaged in regional organizations that are connected to the Forum including the Foreign Fisheries Agreement. The Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA) has managed the tuna industry to nearly everyone’s satisfaction. Its headquarters have been located in the Marshalls Islands for over a decade. Dramatic regional challenges like climate change may force collaborative planning and action.
The Forum may prove to be more resilient and survive this political climate change. It is also time for Guam’s leaders to understand that they are part of a larger region. Guam’s leaders have notoriously snubbed the notion of regional collaboration. Guam is not a co-equal independent nation, but it does have considerable regional muscles. And membership in the Forum remains a distinct possibility. Embrace the islander in you and let’s tackle these island challenges together with our island brothers and sisters that we occasionally remember surround us.
We are not in the South Seas. We are in the Pacific Ocean which at this moment in time doesn’t seem very pacific. The Blue Pacific Continent exists, but right now, it has a regional chasm represented by the equator. Navigators sometimes have the option of using the Big Dipper or the Southern Cross as the basis for understanding where they are. Those nearest the equator use both during certain times of the year. If unity is in the stars, our island leaders should take us there.
Dr. Robert Underwood is the former president of the University of Guam and former member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.