The 51st Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) that was held in Fiji last month will likely go down as among the most eventful in the organisation’s history.
A number of major announcements emerged from the summit, including a commitment by the United States to significantly expand its presence in the region.
However, all of this was largely overshadowed by the news that the Micronesian nation of Kiribati confirmed it will leave PIF.
PIF has faced an unprecedented period of crisis for over a year and a half following the announcement of five Micronesian nations – Palau, Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), Nauru, and now Kiribati – in February 2021 that they would be withdrawing from the peak regional body.
The North Pacific states issued a statement at the time via the Micronesian Presidents’ Summit (MPS), stating that they were withdrawing due to PIF’s failure to elect the Micronesian-backed candidate Gerald Zackios for the position of Secretary-General. They claimed this contravened a long-standing informal agreement to rotate the head position of PIF between the Pacific’s three sub-regions.
However, after a year and a half of deadlock, a glimmer of hope emerged last month following an extraordinary meeting of Micronesian and PIF leaders in Suva.
In this meeting, an agreement was reached that aimed to address Micronesian concerns by officially mandating the sub-regional rotation of the Secretary-General position. Micronesian leaders seemed to support the agreement, with David Panuelo of FSM stating that “a black cloud has disappeared from the Pacific”.
All that remained was for the Suva agreement to be rubber stamped at the 14 July leaders’ retreat.
But if this was the plan, it seems no one told Kiribati President Taneti Maamau.
In a leaked letter, Maamau denounced the lack of consultation surrounding the Suva agreement stating “there was never a MPS caucus decision on the PIF reform packages that Kiribati was part of, and particularly an MPS collective decision to return to the PIF”.
One other major sticking point seems to be that his fellow Micronesian leaders had compromised on their earlier demands for current PIF Secretary-General Henry Puna to step down, a concession Maamau was unwilling to accept.
As a result, Kiribati refused to sign the agreement or attend last month’s Forum, and thereby became the first nation to ever voluntarily withdraw from PIF.
So, what does this mean for PIF? In many ways, this is neither the worst nor best-case scenario. Having faced the prospect of losing nearly one-third of its membership last year, only one nation withdrawing may seem like a relative success.
However, Kiribati’s withdrawal will still damage the political legitimacy of PIF. Importantly, it means that there is now no longer a single avenue through which all Pacific nations can cooperate and coordinate on important regional issues. Instead, there will be an increased emphasis on the ‘patchwork‘ of smaller alternative regional organisations.
As major powers like China and the United States jostle for influence, many leading Pacific figures like former PIF Secretary-General Dame Meg Taylor have emphasised that diplomatic sovereignty for Island nations lies in their ability to stay united, rather than be picked off one by one.
Indeed, it is easy to perceive the shadow of great power competition hanging over Kiribati’s decision to break with its fellow MPS members. Kiribati has a much warmer relationship with China compared to other Micronesian states, who have historically been closer to the United States. Significantly, it was President Maamau that oversaw Kiribati’s shock diplomatic switch from Taiwan to China in 2019, and during his recent meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, it is possible that Chinese influence may have been a factor in his choice to stick the course in withdrawing from PIF.
China has long behaved with ambivalence toward the organisation, and in recent months has attempted to circumvent and even undermine it on a number of occasions. This included controversial attempts at establishing a regional multilateral economic and security agreement outside of the PIF framework and even an offer to host a Pacific Foreign Ministers’ meeting on the same day as the PIF leaders’ retreat.
It is important, however, not to overemphasise the role of China in Kiribati’s decision. Indeed, it is very possible domestic political considerations played an as large, if not larger role than international ones. As Dr Tess Newton Cain of the Griffith Pacific Hub points out, Kiribati has been moving in a more isolationist direction for some time.
Regardless of Kiribati’s reasons, its withdrawal is also a major setback for Australia and its Foreign Minister Penny Wong, who have made PIF a central element of their reinvigorated Pacific foreign policy.
For example, Australia’s recently announced ‘Partners in the Blue Pacific’ initiative with the United States, Japan, and the United Kingdom emphasises a joint aim to ‘further elevate Pacific regionalism, with a strong and united Pacific Islands Forum at its center’.
Whatever happens next, the events of last month’s Forum unearth deeper questions Pacific leaders must address – will Pacific regionalism have PIF at its centre? And moreover, what has this saga shown about their ability to stay united?