Highlight 21/2021 – Pacific Islands Forum Issue-End of Pacific regionalism?
Chloe Abraham, 9 June 2021
The Pacific Islands Forum is a regional inter-governmental organization to strengthen the relations between Pacific Island countries, enhance cooperation, form a trade bloc, maintain regional peace, and emphasize the Pacific’s position on significant issues at the United Nations. The Forum consisted of 18 Pacific countries, including Australia and New Zealand, and are sorted into three sub-groups: Micronesia, Polynesia, and Melanesia. However, there will soon be only 13 members, as all 5 Micronesian countries, the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), Kiribati, the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI), Nauru, and Palau, have decided to leave the regional bloc.
Micronesia’s decision was triggered by the selection of the new Secretary-General, former Prime Minister of the Cook Islands (Polynesian), Henry Puna, earlier this year. Mr. Puna defeated Micronesia’s candidate, Gerald Zackios of the Marshall Islands, by a single vote. Prior to the vote, the Micronesian leaders had made clear that they would withdraw from the Forum if a long-standing “gentlemen’s agreement” was not respected. This “gentlemen’s agreement” clarified that the position of the Secretary-General should rotate among the three sub-regions. Since the establishment of the Forum, Micronesia has only held the position once.
Shortly after the election, the 5 Micronesian leaders signed a communique that indicated that they will initiate their withdrawal process, which will take 1 year to go into effect, with their own exit strategies. The blame has been put on New Zealand and Australia, the two biggest and more powerful Forum members, for Micronesia’s loss. Though the vote was done through secret ballot, some leaders felt that Micronesia would have won the vote if the two countries had not voted.
The breakup comes at a time when Australia, China, and the United States are continuously competing for influence over the region. It is important to mention that three of the Micronesian countries, FSM, Palau, and RMI, are under the Compact of Free Association with the United States, while Nauru and Kiribati still rely heavily on Australia economically. Some fear that the bruised Pacific unity gives Beijing an opportunity to expand their presence in the region. Last year, Kiribati and the Solomon Islands switched their diplomatic ties from Taiwan to China. With a whole sub-region out, it is believed that this would leave some countries vulnerable to China’s influence. The question now is, “what will happen next?” Anything could happen in the next year before the withdrawal of these 5 countries is final. The Forum has already formally apologized to the Micronesian region over the election; however, it might be a little too late for that. This could be the perfect opportunity to reform the structure of the organization to ensure that every interest and every participation is given equal and adequate attention from the Forum. Perhaps then the Micronesian region could retract their decision. If not, could this be the end of Pacific regionalism?
Chloe ABRAHAM, Pacific Islands Forum Issue-End of Pacific regionalism?, Highlight 21/2021, available at www.meig.ch
The views expressed in the MEIG Highlights are personal to the author and neither reflect the positions of the MEIG Programme nor those of the University of Geneva.