The rift over the appointment of the next Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum will not be the death knell for Pacific regionalism as long as Pacific nations keep talking

In my household, sitting together at dinner or chatting via Facetime, the ‘idea’ of Pacific regionalism comes up regularly.  

The talk might be around the relative rights of resident and non-resident cousins to land ‘back home’ (especially if they have land rights in other Pacific countries); the best way to send money ‘back home’ (standing in line at Western Union, trying to ignore the extortionate commissions, or using new internet systems); or maybe about who is able to physically and financially look after ailing family members (usually women who continually take on new care responsibilities and quell their own aspirations).

These discussions are about how to achieve some common good for kin located in places in and around the Pacific, all of whom are negotiating the challenges of their daily lives. We are variously aware of wider challenges to environments, political processes, economic activities, social happenings and cultural expressions. Further, the unsettling challenges of inter-generational interests are ever present.

For guidance on some processes, we revert to interpretations of ‘tradition’. For others we dive into the internet or talk to each other face-to-face or virtually.  It could be one-on-one, in small groups, in larger groups, across generations and overseas.

But as kin, we “stay with the trouble”. It’s what we do as Pacific families, we (though perhaps not everyone) work together to deal with the troubles. And we do the same as Pacific nations.

In recent long-awaited news, Henry Puna was appointed as next Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, arguably the pre-eminent regional institution in the Pacific. Puna stood down as Prime Minister of the Cook Islands in 2020 to accept the nomination. But our colleagues in the North Pacific who disagreed with this appointment have started the process of withdrawing their membership of the Forum. 

This is a serious challenge to the idea of Pacific Regionalism, but it is not its death knell. The Oceanic Pacific encompasses many deep and often turbulent currents.

Many scholars have offered fine arguments about the nature of Pacific Regionalism especially with geopolitical wrangling involving self-interested intentions of the US and China, and let’s not forget the EU, France and the UK.  Australia has always kept self-interest at the forefront of its foreign affairs and New Zealand has also been swayed by the notion of ‘enlightened self-interest’, but this does not work to repair ruptures in kin relations.  

We need to “stay with the trouble”

We need also to be asking who is speaking, and from what position of self-interest?  Insights from astute people of Pacific heritage living in and around the Pacific, for example Dr Transform Aqorau and Maureen Penjueli, are valuable.

The idea of Pacific regionalism has enough momentum, gathered more than 50 years ago as Pacific countries were enjoying newly found visions of independence, to establish regional institutions.

Some processes underpinning these institutions were carefully crafted into rules and regulations.  Others remained in the realm of ‘gentleman’s agreements’ and the associated ‘handshake’ – post-colonial sensibilities that we now know cannot be trusted.  Staying with this sexist colonialist image for the moment, the problem with a ‘handshake’ between ‘gentlemen’ is that you don’t know what the other hand is doing.

We need to “stay with the trouble.”

We all have processes to deal with trouble – the leaders need to return to their kete to offer ways through this. Our kin in the North Pacific have been telling us for some time that they are prepared to take on the leadership role – and leaders in the North Pacific have demonstrated considerable good will to Pacific Regionalism. For example, in 2020 Hilda Heine, President of the Republic of the Marshall Islands and the first woman to lead a Pacific nation, held a successful virtual korero for women across the Pacific.  

Others have also made important steps to affirm Pacific Regionalism. But we have also seen how one honourable ‘public handshake’ with the world over climate change is compromised when, in a ‘private handshake’, the same country (Fiji) agreed to the expulsion of the head of a regional organisation (University of the South Pacific).

Here in Aotearoa New Zealand we have a Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nanaia Mahuta. This is an enlightened appointment and, judging by her remarks to the Diplomatic Corps in early in February, her principles of engagement will guide Aotearoa in a different way to the previous minister’s policy expressed as the ‘Pacific Reset’.  We know there will always be timelags, but let’s see how long it is before those principles of which she has spoken are embedded in the approach from Aotearoa New Zealand to its Pacific kin.

So, what is the way forward for Pacific Regionalism?

Well first off, it is essential to keep talking and meeting. We must allow for expressions of anger and indignation, but also listen carefully to the silences.  There must be a safe space for all expressions and silences to interact, where turmoil can be soothed, differences respected, and conditional commonalities expressed. In this way we can begin to realign our common futures.

It is also time for some “stepping aside”, to make generational shifts and geographical shifts that can give others the opportunity to lead.  It may be a calculated risk in the short term, but in the longer term it will be a shared gain. For 50 years, Pacific politicians and policy makers almost got it right.  Institutions were established, respected leaders emerged, solidarities were consolidated. But not all was right – especially when whales were protected before women.  This is a timely call not just to deepen Pacific regionalism but to make public policy processes open and transparent.

There is much we can learn from the practice of stepping aside. It can bring heightened respect to individuals for their personal integrity, albeit not without political expediency. It may well be a bitter tonic that all members need to swallow – for the collective health of the Pacific.  

But Pacific regionalism does not just rest in political institutions and it may also be time to look elsewhere. As my colleague Dr Claire Slatter, from the University of the South Pacific, and I wrote in our paper Reclaiming Pacific Island Regionalism:

“Regionalism has always been a part of Pacific Island political solidarity. The regionalism of intergovernmental organizations has been about more than simply creating regional capacity. One of the hallmarks has been its effectiveness in politically organizing Pacific Island states to collectively resist powerful outside interests that pose threats to Pacific Island interests.

Nor has regionalism been the exclusive preserve of governments or states. Regional solidarity among peoples’ movements has as long a history in the Pacific as intergovernmental regionalism. This solidarity has included movements for political independence or sovereignty, together with workers’ and women’s rights movements, environmental movements, and mobilization by Pacific churches, trade unions, and NGOs in support of peoples’ struggles for freedom and justice. Regional solidarity has also been a key element in movements against nuclear testing, nuclear bases, and the trans-shipment and/or dumping of nuclear wastes.

Over the decades, NGOs and social movements in the region have not only exerted pressure on independent Pacific Island governments to support their various struggles in defence of Pacific interests, they have also often challenged governments and political elites claiming to themselves the exclusive right to speak for the region.”

So in summary, Pacific regionalism has brought political solidarity among Pacific Islands states and among peoples of the Pacific organized in social movements; it has often brought a convergence into their respective agendas, especially in matters involving external political interests detrimental to Pacific Island ones.

We are now facing the power of internal political interests that are detrimental to Pacific Island ones.

As kin, we still need to “stay with the trouble”.

Yvonne Underhill-Sem is Associate Professor in Pacific Studies at the University of Auckland

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