Micronesian sub-grouping walks out over selection of new secretary-general
The Pacific Islands Forum – the Pacific’s most influential regional body – is in disarray after nearly one-third of its member countries quit en masse.
The countries of the Micronesian sub-grouping – Palau, the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, and Nauru – have all abandoned the forum over the selection of the new secretary-general for the forum, following the election of Polynesia’s candidate in defiance of a long-standing convention that dictated it was the Micronesia’s turn to provide the forum’s leader.
The mass defection represents a significant crisis for the forum, at a time when the Pacific faces acute pan-regional challenges, including recovering from the economic devastation of Covid-19 travel bans and lockdowns, and the existential threat posed by climate change.
Not only has the forum lost five of 18 members, it has lost an entire regional sub-grouping, the Micronesian nations representing the northern Pacific.
With smaller populations and economies, Micronesian nations feel they have been consistently overlooked by comparatively larger Melanesian and Polynesian countries.
By a long-standing convention – known as the ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ – the leadership of the Pacific Islands Forum cycles through the three major sub-regions across the Pacific: Melanesia, Polynesia and Micronesia.
This election was Micronesia’s turn, and the bloc had coalesced its support behind the candidacy of the Marshall Islands ambassador to the US Gerald Zackios.
But in a forum leaders’ meeting last week – “bruising” according to sources in the room – Polynesia’s candidate, the former Cook Islands prime minister Henry Puna, won a fractious vote by nine votes to eight (New Caledonia, currently without a government, did not attend). In response to Zackios’s loss, Palau unilaterally pulled out of the forum.
On Tuesday morning, Micronesian leaders released a statement to “collectively express their great disappointment with the Pacific Islands Forum Secretary General appointment process”.
“The Micronesian presidents jointly agreed to forthwith initiate the formal process of withdrawal from the Pacific Islands Forum respecting their national processes and will act swiftly like the Republic of Palau,” the statement, issued by Nauru president Lionel Aingemea says.
“Each nation will undertake this process with respect to its own internal legal and procedural requirements and [the] final decision rests with respective governments. The Micronesian presidents look forward to strengthening the work of subregional organisations.”
Palau was the first country to leave in the wake of the secretary-general election.
“Clearly there is no need really for Micronesian to be part of the [forum], they don’t really consider us part of them,” the president of Palau, Surangel Whipps Jr, told the Guardian last week.
“Our friends from the South Pacific did not want to honour the gentlemen’s agreement, in fact, they keep saying that they don’t know anything about the gentlemen’s agreement.”
The defections fundamentally alter the make-up of the Pacific Islands Forum, and change its relationships with the broader world.
With Micronesian nations out, there will be no countries in the Pacific Islands Forum north of the equator.
Three of the Pacific states who have left – Palau, FSM, and the Marshall Islands – are closely allied to the United States, in compacts of free association with Washington.
Kiribati has recently ‘flipped’ its formal diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to mainland China, leading to concerns over an increased presence and influence of Beijing over the massive archipelago.
Nauru, a former Australian colony, remains closely hewn to Canberra and dependent on its financial support.
Jonathan Pryke, director of the Pacific Islands Program at the Lowy Institute, said the defections were a “a disaster for the both the forum, and Pacific regionalism”.
The ‘Pacific Way’ is premised on consensus and dialogue, with leaders valuing regular in-person meetings and discussions.
But while the Pacific often acts and speaks as a unified bloc on the world stage – particularly on pan-regional issues such as climate change or ocean health – internally, the region is hugely diverse: between subregions and nations there are significant differences in size, wealth, development, governance structure , ethnicity, culture, and geography.
“This has also revealed how regionalism looks better from afar than it did up close, and revealed how tenuous the regional ties in the Pacific really are. We can be forgiven for thinking it is a tight bloc – on issues like climate, on oceans, it speaks with a united voice – but the reality is there are tensions in the region that are decades old just beneath the surface, and they have cracked open in the last week.”
Pryke said the split was “not the death of regionalism, but it will set it back years”.
“And it’s really disappointing that it’s the small states that are pulling out, they often benefit most from forums like the PIF. But clearly they have felt so marginalised, that this is the only course of action they can take.”