The future of the Pacific Islands Forum is in question, regardless of the outcome of the present crisis, Gonzaga Puas writes.
Over the past year and a half, the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) faced the greatest crisis of its 50-year history. In February 2021, five members of the Micronesian President’s Summit (MPS) — Palau, Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), Nauru, Marshall Islands and Kiribati — indicated their intention to withdraw from PIF.
However, this exit was deferred, after the MPS states announced they would considering retaining their membership of the Forum following their dialogue with the PIF chair and key PIF leaders.
While much of the negotiations and debate have occurred behind closed doors, it’s important to consider how events have developed since the initial split, and what they imply about the future of PIF.
The withdrawal of the MPS states occurred after their candidate was unsuccessful in securing the position of PIF secretary general. For Micronesia, the loss confirmed their suspicion that their sub-region is being sidelined by PIF.
Australia was blamed for the loss, and it was speculated at the time that such a defeat would not have happened if the United States had been a member of the organisation. In response, Palau became the first to withdraw from PIF and closed its embassy in Fiji in protest. FSM followed suit in withdrawing from the organisation, but stopped short of closing its embassy in Fiji.
Many prominent observers understood why the MPS states wanted to withdraw, but at the same time cautioned against the move. They claimed it was not in the best interests of the nations, that the decision was made in the heat of the moment, and that the long-term consequences were not considered.
For example, the seventh president of FSM, Emanuel Mori opposed the decision. He argued that a divided Pacific weakens Pacific Islanders’ voices in international forums, particularly on the crucial issue of climate change. Mori said that it was not a wise decision for the Micronesians ‘to withdraw into our own corners of this great Pacific Ocean and try to find a way forward alone’.
If PIF cannot resolve the Micronesian issue, it could lead to further political dissonance in the wider Pacific. The fallout of the crisis could create antagonistic tendencies between the three sub-regions – Melanesia, Polynesia and Micronesia – as they each focus on their own interests and less on cooperation. However, at this stage a window of opportunity remains open for the MPS states to remain in the PIF.
If the MPS states withdraw, significant concerns will be raised over the future of regional cooperation and security in the Pacific. In 2023–24, three of the North Pacific nations – Palau, Kiribati, and Marshall Islands – are due to participate in a review of their respective Compacts of Free Association (COFA) with the United States, which include provisions regarding security in the sub-region. The events of the last year reveal that in an environment of sometimes fragile regional relationships in the Pacific, MPS states are contemplating the benefits of sub-regional unity and international opportunities.
It has been put forward that the United States could strengthen its influence in the northern Pacific by entering into further COFA’s with Nauru, Kiribati and Tuvalu. This would enable the Micronesian nations to retreat into their own region and make decisions based on the interests of their sub-region.
The North Pacific has already laid groundwork towards this goal, as in recent years Micronesian leaders have been working on establishing a trading bloc, so that more international organisations can have a presence in the northern Pacific. Discussion at the 20th MPS indicates that the Micronesian states are looking at widening their engagement internationally rather than looking south of the equator when it comes to all types of security matters, such as economic issues, transnational crime, and the impacts of climate change.
Regardless of this work, PIF is presently the most encompassing Pacific organisation focused on regional security and politics. Micronesian non-membership would mean not being part of PIF’s various regional initiatives, such as the ‘2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent’, and the Boe Declaration’s ‘expanded concept of security’.
If Micronesia’s ability to cooperate with the region on security issues are diminished, the majority of the sub-region will naturally look to rely more on its traditional partner, the United States.
During his 12 February trip to Fiji this year, United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken attended a dialogue with Pacific Island leaders. Shortly afterwards in a media event, he renewed America’s commitment to the region, saying ‘what happens here [in the Pacific Islands] matters to the United States’.
Some American commentators, however, have argued the crisis shows America needs to be more directly involved in Island affairs, saying the United States needs to reassess ‘subcontracting its foreign policy for many Pacific islands to Australia and New Zealand’.
Despite key differences with the American stance on concerns such as climate and nuclear contamination, the Compact nations generally align their foreign policy in support of the American position and value themselves as an important part of its Pacific security umbrella.
However, within the MPS, nuanced variations in the level of commitment to the United States exist, as do contrasting foreign policy positions on diplomatic ties with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Taiwan, for instance, with FSM and Kiribati retaining diplomatic ties with PRC.
The PIF leadership controversy reveals that the Pacific is a dynamic region where each nation has its own interests that play into sub-regional politics, which in turn play out in regional bodies such as PIF. Even if the MPS states retain their strong connections to the rest of the Pacific and remain inside the tent, the Micronesian outlook and context will drive efforts to broaden engagement beyond the south.
It will therefore be crucial that Pacific leaders are able to rejuvenate their attempts at building a truly unified regional voice. If they can do this, the future of PIF and the region will be bright. If they cannot, we should expect choppy waters ahead.
This article is based upon a paper published by ANU Department of Pacific Affairs (DPA) as part of its ‘In brief’ series. The original paper can be found here.