PIF goes pfft, then poof
The Pacific Island Forum is under a great deal of stress and some confusion these days due to the sudden withdrawal of Kiribati a few days before the meeting began on July 11. Kiribati President Taneti Maamau outlined the country’s reasons in a July 9 letter. He stated that the concerns of Micronesian countries have not been adequately addressed and that the dates of the PIF meeting coincided with Kiribati National Day celebrations.
Immediate speculation centered on the recently concluded agreement between China and Kiribati. This was seen as a disruptive move encouraged by the Chinese. The Economist proclaimed that the PIF was “derailed.” Former Kiribati President Anote Tong speculated that China and Kiribati might be “cooking something.” Martin Kwan stated in The Diplomat that China would get no “strategic advantage” from the Kiribati withdrawal. Guessing about Chinese advantage was more important than listening to Kiribati itself.
China’s Belt and Road initiative continues unabated in the island Pacific. Beijing Foreign Studies University now offers classes in seven Pacific languages including Bislama and Tok Pisin. No language from Micronesia is included yet and the others are all from Polynesian countries that recognize China.
Additionally, China has announced that 2,000 scholarships will be provided to students from Pacific island countries at its universities. These students will not stay in China and will return to their home countries with a favorable perspective on the Belt and Road initiative. Nothing on that scale is even imagined by the United States.
Kiribati’s withdrawal was surprising given the recent agreement with PIF leadership signed by Federated States of Micronesia President David Panuelo and Palau President Surangel Whipps Jr. in June.
Meeting in Suva under the leadership of Fiji Prime Minister Bainimarama and the cooperation of Samoa and Cook Island prime ministers, the agreement was hailed as signaling the end of the Micronesian pause on PIF membership. Panuelo said a “big, deep dark cloud that has been hanging over the Pacific has evaporated from this meeting.”
Apparently, the dark cloud came back with the action of Kiribati. Nauru also did not attend the PIF meeting due to Covid-19 concerns. Marshall Islands stayed home as well, citing the governmental processes to reverse their PIF withdrawal had not been completed. President Kabua said the Marshalls no longer wish to withdraw from the Forum. All of these resembled the Micronesian disarray that blighted the first Forum meeting in 2020.
In the midst of this confusion, the United States entered the scene for the first time. In a surprising move, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris was allowed to virtually address the Forum. She made a commitment to bring back the Peace Corps and to increase funding for Pacific countries by up to $600 million to include projects for climate resiliency over 10 years. This certainly doesn’t include the funding being negotiated between the freely associated states in Micronesia and the United States. She also said embassies would be opened up in Tonga and Kiribati. This is in addition to the promised embassy in the Solomon Islands. It is not lost on anyone that these three countries recognize China and have signed agreements to strengthen unspecified “military relations.”
Harris also promised to send an envoy to the Forum from now on. It isn’t quite clear what this means. What is clear is that the prospect of a Chinese presence in Abariringa (Canton) island is of deep concern to U.S. security agencies. Its proximity to Kwajalein and its position as a buffer between much of Polynesia and the American-dominated Pacific could change the strategic picture in dramatic ways. Strategic positioning between China and the United States remained the backdrop of the Forum meeting and spawned intense speculation. Of course, the official communique emphasized the importance of “remaining united as a Forum family” in dealing with intensifying “geostrategic interest.”
It is interesting to note that New Caledonia and French Polynesia are members of the Forum even though they are French territories and have voting representation in the French National Assembly. They simultaneously are more integrated into the metropolitan country and more autonomous than U.S. territories. Guam, the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands and American Samoa have non-voting representations in Congress and are not being currently considered for membership in the Forum. Vis-a-vis the national government, they are less autonomous than French territories.
Many observers think territories should not be represented at all. It should be limited to Pacific island entities that have “sovereignty,” even freely associated states. Australia supported the admission of the French territories. It is not clear whether any U.S. territory wants to be admitted to PIF. It is less clear if the U.S. would endorse such a move. That certainly would add more Micronesian clout to the Forum if Guam and the CNMI are included. However, the U.S. has historically not been as open to independent membership for U.S. territories in any international body.
The future of Pacific unity is under some stress and will require significant leadership to bring it back together. Great power rivalry is adding to the stress. Perhaps the Blue Continent needs a new approach to Pacific island unity that has not yet been imagined.
In the Pacific, we want to believe that Pacific islanders have more in common with each other than with the great powers that dominate our existence. We want to believe that we are Micronesians or Polynesians or Melanesians. We do so even in the midst of knowing that it was Durville, a French explorer in the 1830s, who gave us these terms.
If we fail to identify that underlying commonality, PIF may simply go pfft and then poof.
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.