Whither the Pacific Islands Forum: Is there an alternative to regionalism?
Updated: Mar 7, 2021
The event itself happened quickly enough.
Members of the Pacific Islands Forum elected Henry Puna, former Prime Minister of the Cook Islands, over Gerald Zackios, Marshall Islands ambassador to the United States, as secretary-general, highlighting a rift between the Micronesian and Polynesian subgroups of the organization that has embodied Pacific regionalism since 1971.
Then Micronesia left. The immediate cause: failure to abide by a “gentlemen’s agreement” to rotate leadership among the north and south Pacific sub-groups.
“The process regarding the appointment of the secretary general has clearly indicated to the Republic of Palau that unity, regionalism and the Pacific Way no longer guide the forum,” stated Palau’s Feb. 4 diplomatic note, informing the world at large that it was terminating its participation in the Pacific Island Forum. Papua New Guinea supports Micronesia while calling for continued solidarity. The PIF is, for now, a South Pacific organization, at least in principle.
The Pacific Island Forum, formed in New Zealand in 1971, following a burst of de-colonization throughout Africa, Southeast Asia and much of the rest of the world, fueling widespread optimism about what self-determination could accomplish.
The Compacts of Free Association did not exist; Micronesia was a trust territory while American soldiers slogged through the jungles of Vietnam against an enemy, who quoted their own Declaration of Independence to split from France. Zimbabwe, before the name became synonymous with broken dreams and corruption, was Rhodesia.
The goal: Pacific regionalism, which basically means a diplomatic order that creates institutions around a collective identity within a region and shared sense of identity. The PIF, from its webpage, touts a vision “for a region of peace, harmony, security, social inclusion and prosperity, so that all Pacific people can lead free, healthy, and productive lives,” which is possible through “fostering cooperation between governments, collaboration with international agencies, and by representing the interests of its members.” Sounds great. Does anyone disagree with those principles?
It is easy to read a lot into this development, and there has been no shortage of commentary. Will this undermine the emerging Indo-Pacific? Has China driven a wedge deeper into the American-led world order? Given that each nation has to follow its own procedures to withdraw, and the process can take upwards of a year, each of the departing nations could change their minds. Likewise, the PIF could itself change course.
The move is reminiscent of several other recent withdrawals – Brexit, the U.S. withdrawal from the World Health Organization during the Trump administration. Both of those heralded a breakdown of multi-lateral cooperation in favor of go-it-alone sovereignty and a screw-you to elites preaching the globalism gospel.
The situation of the PIF is different. The departing members, at least through their public statements, are not upset over the organization itself. They have not argued its ineffectiveness or elitism, or a realignment of geopolitical power, but rather a sense of unfairness, that it was their turn to be heard and that they are voiceless.
Perhaps the PIF is due for a day of reckoning, to demonstrate to its members and their constituents, which is to say measurable improvements for live of Pacific Islanders. With objectives ranging from trade, economic development, security, to climate change, has the PIF actually delivered anything? How can there be a Pacific identity represented through an organization that has not allowed membership from throughout the Pacific? Why are Guam, the Marianas and American Samoa, for starters, not included? Why not the U.S. or select states, for that matter?
The various COFAs explicitly created an American role through military access and allowing Micronesians immigration and employment rights. What of the Philippines? It’s difficult to consider economic development throughout the Pacific without acknowledging to the outsized role that the island archipelago plays in the Pacific workforce.
And of course, the conversation turns back to China, and whether this is to China’s advantage. I’m not convinced that it really matters either way. Several of the Micronesian nations, as well as other PIF members, have diplomatic relations with China. China’s is active in the region, and currently touting its work. With or without the PIF, there is little reason to expect China to not pursue its own agenda.
Consider the example of NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Born from the chaos of World War II and the Cold War, its predominant purpose was mutual military aid. In the decades since, it has expanded into numerous political and economic arenas. But its core purpose remains security.
The regional order will evolve. Personally, I would imagine that a Pacific with the PIF is better than one without, and that the PIF should use this as an opportunity to become an effective body that can actually do something, focusing on specific areas in which it seeks to accomplish something such that members actually have something to gain from it. In short, maybe its time to replace regionalism with something more concrete.
Gabriel McCoard is an attorney, who previously worked in Palau and Chuuk State. He is currently weathering the pandemic stateside. Send feedback to email@example.com.