There are many ways to respond to a serious crisis, but hyperbole and panic should not be among them. Some commentators have elevated the leadership controversy within the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) to an existential threat to Pacific regionalism. Hyperbole with a touch of panic?
For me, these analyses called to mind Agent Kay’s calming advice to Jay in the film Men in Black about handling an existential crisis. "There’s always an Arquillian Battle Cruiser, or a Corillian Death Ray, or an intergalactic plague that is about to wipe out all life" on earth.
I have worked regularly on the regional architecture for most of my academic career, many times as an adviser to PIF governments. Although not at its formation, I had the opportunity to interview every island leader there on their expectations for the nascent association at the second South Pacific Forum meeting in Canberra in February 1972.
Every decade for the past half a century, it seems to me, there has been at least one "existential threat" to Pacific island regionalism. All too often, if the media had its way, they would be region-busting and involve Australia in some negative way.
It is true that Australia should have done more to prevent the current crisis, which had been brewing for well over half a year. Australia had the resources to help reduce the limitations imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic on the essential face-to-face dynamics of the PIF to assist in brokering a solution to the leadership impasse.
A brief review of the half-century of the "existential" crises that the Pacific island states have survived demonstrates both the robustness and fragility of this system.
Historically, Fiji has been the single most important architect of the modern system. The importance of its leadership role cannot be minimized and certainly should not be overlooked in finding the deep roots of the current meltdown.
Fiji was the safety valve that prevented the 1970 existential crisis to regionalism when French, British and American intransigence to post-colonial reform threatened the survival of the South Pacific Commission.
Fiji’s first prime minister, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, took the lead in creating the association of independent states that became the South Pacific Forum, which relieved the pressure on the commission and allowed time for it to reform itself.
Ratu Mara was instrumental in including Australia and New Zealand as of right in the new association because he and his fellow islanders appreciated the sympathetic international strength the two would bring.
For most of the ensuing 50 years, Fiji has been the only island member that has been willing and able continuously to devote the resources to regional leadership. Its leadership has been an essential part of the glue holding the PIF together
Also, as Australia and New Zealand experience regularly, regional leadership can be a source of tension. Envy, differences of interest and perceptions of arrogance have beset Fiji as well.
Under Ratu Mara, Fiji tended to favor the Polynesian cultural traditions of the original island membership. This created tensions when Australia pressed for Papua New Guinea’s admission in 1972. The cultural divide grew as more Melanesian states secured independence.
The pressure for reform grew within the PIF as it had in the South Pacific Commission. The threat to the coherence of the PIF was relieved in the mid-1980s by the creation of the Melanesian Spearhead Group. Ultimately, Fiji relented and joined the group in 1998.
Fiji’s commitment to the PIF was seriously undermined after the 2006 military coup due to the role Australia played in using the PIF as a mechanism to punish Fiji.
The effort to isolate Fiji even extended to an Australian-led attempt to prevent the coup leader, Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, from assuming his turn as leader of the Melanesian group.
Bainimarama responded in the usual way by setting up a new regional association—the Pacific Islands Development Forum (PIDF)—to pursue a separate Fiji-centric regional agenda.
This was very much a deliberate existential dagger aimed at the PIF. The intent was to undo Ratu Mara’s inclusion of Australia in the forum by undermining the PIF to replace it with the PIDF.
That proved a bridge too far and the PIF survived, while the PIDF continues without yet achieving the effective regional role Bainimarama had intended.
For good or ill, arguably, Fiji is the keystone to effective Pacific island regionalism, and yet, for more than 15 years, it has been unwilling or unable to play the critical role upon which regional arrangements have depended for the past half-century.
This may help to explain the uncharacteristically nationalistic approach Fiji has taken at the expense of regional leadership, which in turn has contributed to the current PIF crisis.
Promoting its own candidate, Ratu Inoke Kubuabola, for the first time in 50 years, Fiji was unable to play its customary role as Dutch uncle to the region. And, when it switched to support the Cook Islands candidate, former prime minister Henry Puna, it strengthened Micronesian suspicions that the original Polynesian club was still running the show.
The repercussions may well undermine Bainimarama’s plans for a grand show when he assumes the PIF leadership at the 2021 leaders’ meeting in Fiji. If a third of the PIF leaders fail to attend, even the threat of this boycott will dampen the enthusiasm of invited leaders (including US President Joe Biden) to attend.
This is not to shift responsibility for the current contretemps away from Australia or to Fiji. Rather, it shows that Canberra is not alone in failing the region by omission or commission.
While history suggests that there are grounds for optimism, these rays of light will be shut out completely if the dark clouds of name-calling, blaming and entrenched position-taking are allowed to block them out.
Despite the variety of aspersions cast on its value to the region, to the Micronesian states and to Australia, the PIF has survived for five decades because it has utility to its members.
One key value is the force-multiplying influence that membership gives the five Micronesian states that have declared their intention to leave the forum. The five constitute the majority in the influential eight-member smaller island states caucus within the PIF.
Since 2006, the PIF has institutionally supported a program unit that was established specifically to target sustainable development in the smaller island states. With the help of this unit, the disaffected Micronesian states set most of the regional strategy for the smaller states, which has promoted their priorities on such issues as climate change, labor (mobility) and transportation.
Another possible ray of hope is the year it will take before any of the denunciations take effect. That may give time for cooler counsel or diplomatic balm to be applied, which, if the senior leadership in the region acts, could restore the regional balance.
Both Kiribati and Nauru will have time to reflect on their important transport and trade ties with Fiji and through Fiji to the wider world. The strategically important US-aligned Micronesian states may come to believe that even closer American ties cost the international and diplomatic flexibility that PIF membership gave them.
Some of the other actors may also use this time to consider the worth of contesting for a prize they helped to break.
The collapse of the Pacific Islands Forum is not yet quite the done deal that some commentary suggests.
Richard Herr is the academic director of the parliamentary law, practice and procedure course in the Faculty of Law at the University of Tasmania. This article was first published in the Feb. 16, 2021 issue of The Strategist.