The Pacific Islands Forum matters for the Pacific, and for New Zealand. Its collapse is a distraction, and one that will divert from New Zealand’s other priorities in the Pacific.
Events in the last week have been an unmitigated disaster for Pacific regionalism.
After a marathon Special Leaders meeting last week, held for the first time online, that ran into the early hours, Pacific leaders have emerged with a new Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum. Cook Islands’ former prime minister Henry Puna was elected 9–8, with one abstention. The result of the dispute is a Forum greatly diminished, with five Micronesian states starting the process of leaving the Forum, following through on their threat to quit if their candidate was not appointed. The region is now more bitterly divided than at any time in recent history.
Why does this all matter? What is the significance of the Forum? And what impact will this have on New Zealand’s relationships in the Pacific?
What key priorities in the Pacific are jeopardised by the fragmentation of the Pacific Islands Forum? Click here to comment.
The Pacific Islands Forum is the region’s leading political and economic multilateral organisation, responsible for enabling cooperation and collaboration within its member states, and between its member states and the rest of the world. The Forum is sometimes criticised for being a bloated bureaucracy responsible for organising endless meetings that generate bland communiqués which do little to guide domestic policy.
This critique discredits the marked achievements the Forum has made in its 50-year history, both in moulding the policy debate but also in helping reshape norms, values and identity in the Pacific. From nuclear testing and non-proliferation, regional security, fisheries management to climate change, the Forum has been the driving force in forming a unified policy and agenda.
Through the regionally adopted “Blue Pacific” narrative, Pacific nations are assertively reshaping the image of the region from one of remoteness and fragility to being resilient custodians of a vast ocean continent. By speaking with a unified voice, the Pacific has been able to make progress on these issues not only within the region, but also to advocate on these issues on a global stage with a vastly outsized voice.
The Forum elevates New Zealand and Australia above other partners, giving them privileged and exclusive status within the Pacific. As members, both can build political relationships in the region to the exclusion of other major powers, including China and the US.
The Forum also has a deeper value in what it represents for Pacific regionalism. It embodies the values of “Talanoa” – storytelling that leads to consensus-building and decision-making – something that is deeply enshrined in many Pacific cultures.
The idea of the Forum helps to nurture threads of cultural connection and shared identity that are felt deeply in all corners of the Pacific from Niue to Nauru. For many nations, the first step was independence and the second was joining the Forum on the path to sovereignty and agency.
So, the Forum matters for the Pacific, and for New Zealand. The Forum elevates New Zealand and Australia above other partners, giving them privileged and exclusive status within the Pacific. As members, both can build political relationships in the region to the exclusion of other major powers, including China and the US.
The collapse at the Forum is a distraction, and one that will take investment from all parties through first listening and later reconciling that will distract from New Zealand’s other priorities in the Pacific.
It is firmly within New Zealand’s interest to have a Forum that is functioning much better than what is being witnessed today. If anything, the current drama is a distraction from the extreme challenges facing the region ranging from the economic fallout of Covid-19 to intensifying geostrategic competition to climate change.
We should not exaggerate things. The results of the last week will not profoundly change the way New Zealand engages in its relationships in the Pacific. The idea of a unified Pacific was always stronger than its reality, and as the last week reveals there are deep tensions in the Pacific that need to be resolved.
New Zealand will continue to prosecute most of its priorities at the bilateral level, much as it did before. Still, the collapse at the Forum is a distraction, and one that will take investment from all parties through first listening and later reconciling that will distract from New Zealand’s other priorities in the Pacific.
On other priorities, pundits outside of the region are quick to ask, what does this mean for China? China has of course been growing its influence in the region. It has grown to be the third largest donor to the region, it is a major commercial trading partner and significant source of foreign investment, and its diplomatic networks continue to grow in the Pacific.
China will of course try to take advantage of any perceived rift between Australia and New Zealand and the broader region. But at a time of extreme sensitivity in the Pacific it would be wise to not overstep the mark, at risk of drawing the ire of a deeply divided region desperate to once again find consensus.
And consensus will be difficult to find. Secretary-General Puna will have to muster all the political skill he has developed in his 10 years as Cook Islands Prime Minister to try and bring the region back together and heal the deep rifts that have ripped open in the last week. It will be a herculean effort that may take years and will overshadow the already significant work the Forum was engaged in trying to resolve the larger challenges the Pacific is facing. Let us hope he’s up to the task.