By Mar-Vic Cagurangan
A photo from the Pacific Islands Forum showing secretary general Henry Puna hugging Kiribati President Taneti Maamau in Fiji perfectly captured the happy ending to a diplomatic drama that almost crumbled the regional bloc.
During the leaders’ retreat in Nadi, the Forum officially welcomed Kiribati back to the fold. After straggling for almost seven months since fellow Micronesian nations reconsidered their exit from the bloc, Maamau said he was glad to have reemerged from isolation. Pacific islanders are stronger together as a family, he said.
“You can’t do things by yourself,” Maamau said, speaking after his bilateral meeting in Nadi, in the margins of the leaders' special retreat. “We can’t do things alone, especially in this era when the global challenges are so profound and unpredictable.”
The diplomatic reconciliation came at a crucial time when the Pacific island region is fast becoming an ideological battleground for the world’s superpowers. Kiribati’s pullout was considered a devastating blow to regionalism, which has been vital to the Pacific island nations’ ability to deal with the escalating geopolitical tensions amid China’s amplified interest in the region.
The Forum fell apart in 2020 when the subregional group— consisting of the FSM, Palau, the Marshall Islands, Nauru and Kiribati—resigned en masse following the Fiji faction’s move to skip over Marshall Islands Ambassador Gerald Zackios’ candidacy for secretary general. The Forum handed the seat to Puna despite an earlier agreement to rotate the leadership position among member countries.
The FSM, Palau, the Marshall Islands and Nauru this year reconsidered their exit from the bloc as a result of the Suva Agreement that listed reform packages addressing the concerns raised by the Micronesian nations. Maamau, however, announced full withdrawal from the bloc, saying his country wasn’t part of the Suva deal.
Forum chair and Fiji Prime Minister Sitiveni Ligamamada Rabuka’s persistent efforts to woo Maamau back to the group eventually saved the day.
“Sometimes the route to victory is through humility, and sometimes a perceived loss is the greatest gain imaginable,” FSM President David Panuelo said.
Kiribati’s return has sealed the Forum’s reunification, allowing the Pacific island nations to speak in one voice and act in sync when negotiating offers from powerful outsiders.
At the height of the regional bloc’s friction last year, China attempted to step in. Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi took a tour of the Pacific, courting leaders to sign on to a sweeping regional economic and security deal. Pacific leaders rejected Beijing’s offer.
“We are leaders, we are also followers. We give and we also receive. But we thrive best when we unite,” Rabuka said.
The new era in regional diplomacy has also prompted Fiji to examine its association with Beijing. The Fiji Times reported that Rabuka’s government planned to end a police training and exchange agreement with China.
“Our system of democracy and justice systems are different so we will go back to those that have similar systems with us,” Rabuka told the Fiji Times, referring to Australia and New Zealand.
With Kiribati’s return to the Forum bonding the regional bloc back in shape, the Micronesian group is seeking more active participation in the organization, starting with a bid to secure a leadership position.
During its retreat on Feb. 13, the Micronesian Presidents Summit endorsed Nauru to be the next secretary general of the Forum beginning in 2024 and proposed the establishment of a sub-regional office in Kiribati and the Office of the Pacific Ocean Commissioner to be based in Palau.
Panuelo said having an international office in Kiribati, as proposed by the MPS, would be a first for the island nation. “They deserve it, and it makes my heart glad. As chair, I really want to make sure that my MPS brothers and sisters are happy,” Panuelo said.
“As chair of the MPS and as an advocate for Pacific unity, I felt that it was, in part, the FSM’s responsibility to ensure that our collective Micronesian subregion emerges stronger together—for our own sake, as well as the sake of the Pacific at large," he added.
The aborted Micronexit has presented a collective lesson for the region where subtle discrimination has for years caused silent resentment on the part of the subregional group.
“Micronesia has so much to showcase to the region and to the world," Rabuka said at the opening of the MPS meeting, to which he was invited by Panuelo. "[Micronesians are] leaders in climate and ocean advocacy, and collectively you are the largest custodian of our Blue Pacific. This is why your voice is so important in our regional settlements. The [Blue Pacific] region and the future of our Forum family are now in your hands.”