The Splintering of the Pacific Islands Forum – What Now?

Ever since its inception in 1971, the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) has had numerous obstacles to overcome in developing and strengthening cooperation across the world’s largest ocean. These include the yawning physical distances between many Pacific nations, which traditionally posed unique communication challenges and the need to juggle the diplomatic interests of several outside actors, including Australia, New Zealand, the United States, the European Union and, increasingly, China. Occasionally, intra-organisational disputes have spilled out into the open, including the expulsion of Fiji in 2009 in the wake of a prior coup. Even so, for decades the sense of togetherness and shared interests, including joint concerns about the emerging economic and socio-political effects of climate change, had kept the PIF stable and consistently the most prominent regional mechanism for Pacific cooperation. However, even relatively silent waters can run deep, eventually resulting in built-up internal pressures to come to the fore just as the peripheral geopolitical situation is changing rapidly, with more external actors bolstering their ranks.

A Fateful Break-Up

After a rancorous summit in February of this year, and a heavily criticised election of a new Secretary-General (SG) of the PIF, a chasm emerged after Cook Islands representative Henry Puna won the contest. In protest, the government of Palau announced that it would be withdrawing from the regional body. This bombshell was followed by announcements that the four other Micronesian states, namely the Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, and Nauru would also move towards the exit. Should all five states ultimately leave, it would not only deal a critical blow to the PIF, it would also shatter the longstanding myth that the Forum was resilient and possessed enough “sticky power” to withstand internal disputes.

Even though the withdrawal statements of the five Micronesian government may have appeared abruptly, their actions should not have come as a surprise. Following a Micronesian presidents’ summit in October 2020, it became clear that if the “gentlemen’s agreement” of rotating the SG among the three subregions Micronesia, Melanesia, and Polynesia – was not going to be honored by electing a Micronesian representative this time, there would be political consequences. Surangel Whipps Jr, Palau’s newly-elected president, led the protests throughout the latter months of 2020, repeatedly warning that the Micronesians were, in fact, serious about leaving. With borders closed and in-person meetings off the table, the PIF’s convening for the quadrennial SG election might have been ill-fated from the onset. The traditional “Pacific Way” of coming together for an in-person PIF leaders’ retreat and resolving squabbles through informal negotiations simply was not feasible amidst a global pandemic.

Cracks Beneath the Surface

Addressing members during the inaugural “Blue Pacific Futures” meetings, outgoing SG Dame Meg Taylor still enthusiastically embraced the PIF as the “pinnacle of a much broader regional architecture”. Her speech unequivocally underlined why the regional body has, despite contrary indications, not lost its appeal. For a region so widespread and diverse, collaboration is not just convenient, it ensures that the Pacific’s resources are guarded by its rightful “custodians”. Yet, this had been preceded by a longstanding desire among the Forum’s member states to rethink the very concept of regionalism. In essence, there was an internal push for the collective to be more reflective of geopolitical dynamics, as outlined in the 2013 “Pacific Plan Review”.

Since joining the PIF in the 1990s, Micronesian states have been vocal about being marginalised, having only had one SG represent the five northernmost island nations throughout its fifty-year history. Failing yet again to have their voices heard and hastily pushing for withdrawal was, therefore, not only a spontaneous act of defiance; it was the last straw after years of dissatisfaction which culminated in February’s fateful farewell.

The Geopolitics of the Pacific – All at Sea?

Externally, the region’s adamant stance to tackle climate change on a global level served to prompt more foreign actors to increase their presence in the region. Since taking office this January, U.S. President Joe Biden has underscored his commitment to the cause and may now have a window of opportunity in the Pacific, given China’s rather tepid attempt at cutting carbon emissions in its 2021 Five-Year Plan. Despite a recent stern warning from the PIF reacting to Japan’s announcement to release radioactive water from the Fukushima reactor into the ocean in April 2021, the rift now unequivocally tinges the SG’s position to stand for a common ambition to address climate change.

In the long run, however, it remains to be seen whether the fracturing of the PIF will, indeed, prove to be an overture for both Beijing and Washington to increase their geopolitical leverage. Beijing’s Pacific aid diplomacy has indeed been a double-edged sword on many occasions, ranging from partially-successful infrastructure projects in Fiji and a controversial fishing facility in Papua New Guinea, to an ambiguous aid budget for the entire region as of late. The future shape of Sino-American Pacific competition could also depend on other external actors, primarily Australia and New Zealand but also increasingly India. Additionally, the EU, in a rare move, has called on the PIF to remain united.

Moreover, Taipei’s four remaining diplomatic allies in the Pacific have in recent years been subjected to mounting pressure from Beijing to sever ties with Taipei, marking the end of an unofficial diplomatic truce between China and Taiwan. In addition to Kiribati and the Solomon Islands switching recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 2019, poorer cross-Strait relations have also spilled over into the Pacific in sometimes unexpected ways, including a cake featuring a Taiwanese flag that was served at a diplomatic function in Suva, Fiji which caused a physical scuffle in October 2020.

Additionally, the PIF’s internal travails may also affect the region’s post-Covid economic rebuilding and ability to address climate change concerns. Beginning 2021 in such a particularly bleak manner casts a dark shadow on the PIF’s ability to overcome obstacles as it braces for its fiftieth anniversary. This, coupled with the need to alleviate the pandemic’s economic fallout, and working on mending ties, will require more than goodwill and consolatory speeches. Prime Ministers James Marape of PNG and Tuilaepa Malielegaoi of Samoa have already thrown their support behind a “non-contestable” rotation system for future SGs, hinting at reforming the organisational structure at large. The question now is whether such measures to preserve the PIF as the common Pacific voice may have come too little, too late.