It took them three months to apologize, but for the “Fiji faction” of the cleaved Pacific Islands Forum, it’s probably better late than never.
Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama said, “Sorry to you my fellow Micronesian brothers,” during a recent virtual Forum Troika.
Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape, Samoa Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, the Forum's outgoing secretary-general, Dame Meg Taylor, offered individual apologies as well. Of the breakaway group, only Presidents Lionel Aingimea and David Panuelo, of Nauru and FSM, respectively, were in attendance at the virtual forum.
Palau, Federated States of Micronesia, Marshall Islands, Nauru and Kiribati have initiated the one-year process of withdrawal from the regional bloc in protest over the Forum’s renouncement of a “gentlemen’s agreement” to rotate the leadership selection among member nations. It was their turn to take the leadership role.
During the Feb. 4 vote, the Forum picked Cooks Island Prime Minister Henry Puna over Marshall Islands' Ambassador Gerald Zackios, the Micronesian subregion’s candidate. Zackios won by a single vote.
Prior to the February election, leaders of the Micronesian region had repeatedly warned they would bolt out of the Forum if their turn to lead was shunned. A handshake is expected to be honored, an agreement is an agreement, they said.
Forum chair Kausea Natano said the virtual meeting “was an opportunity for the forum to directly express to the Micronesian leaders our regret and apologies for the current circumstances facing our forum family.”
Hoping to fix the rift with their casual apologies, the Forum appealed to the breakaway group to stay in the fold, as they seek "an amicable way forward to this impasse.”
But the apology was no good without a remedy, according to Palau President Surangel Whipps, who dismissed the Forum’s gesture. "Sorry for what?” he told AFP.
President Whipps won’t trade his principle for sweet talks. The only way the Micronesians would rejoin the Forum was if incoming secretary-general Henry Puna agreed to step aside.
The Forum has 18 members and the impending departure of the five nations would leave a one-third void in the bloc. The Forum is mostly made up of small island states along with Australia and New Zealand, and is a key element of the U.S. allies' diplomatic efforts in the region.
The group is influential on the issue of climate change, representing the voice of many of the region's small island states that are threatened by rising seas and more intense cyclones.
The disappointing outcome of the recent Leaders’ Summit on Action underscored the imperativeness of restoring regional solidarity. World leaders made commitments to reduce their emissions but they fell short of the Pacific Islands’ expectations and demand for exigent action.
A unified louder voice from this part of the world is crucial. Otherwise, sporadic input from individual tiny nations would sink along their sinking islands.
At the same time, the current diplomatic crack is providing a potential opening for China to enhance its clout with the sparsely populated but strategically important Pacific island nations, hence becoming apparent pawns in the games of the world’s superpowers.
Clearly, this is not the right time for the region to go their separate ways.