As the fallout from the Pacific Islands Forum’s controversial election process continues, what are the broader ramifications of the division – and what role could New Zealand play in fixing it? Sam Sachdeva reports

In the year it celebrates its 50th anniversary, the Pacific Islands Forum is being tested perhaps like never before.

The decision of five Micronesian states to withdraw from the 18-member forum, in the wake of former Cook Islands prime minister Henry Puna’s controversial selection as its next secretary-general, has splintered the grouping and sparked concern about the wider geopolitical ramifications. 

Marshall Islands diplomat Gerald Zackios, beaten to PIF’s top job by Puna despite the united backing of Micronesian states who believed a gentlemen’s agreement meant it was the bloc’s turn to hold the role, was among members of a panel discussion hosted by Georgetown University’s Center for Australian, New Zealand and Pacific Studies on Wednesday (NZT), addressing the fallout and looking ahead.

Zackios congratulated Puna on his success and wished him luck for his tenure, but warned Pacific regionalism was suffering from serious flaws at the very time where effective regional approaches were needed most.

The withdrawal of the Micronesian members was “over much more than a difficult election”, he said, with the forum struggling to take a sufficiently dynamic approach and allow the preferred policies of different members to be expressed.

“We have honestly struggled to take our homegrown priorities into the larger organisation, we are often shunted off into smaller states grouping, the small island states, whose outcomes generally don’t easily see the light of day.”

Gerald Zackios, the Marshall Islands’ unsuccessful nominee to lead the Pacific Islands Forum, has warned the organisation’s structures are not fit for purpose. Screenshot: Georgetown University.

Dr Anna Powles, a senior lecturer at Massey University’s Centre for Defence and Security Studies, told Newsroom the Micronesian members felt they had not received “a fair crack” within the forum’s leadership roles, despite being at the forefront of high-profile and pan-Pacific issues like climate change and fisheries management.

Powles said there were also intergenerational dynamics at play between the elder statesmen of the Pacific and some of the younger Micronesian leaders, with a sense from some the Micronesians had undermined their cause through the hardline approach they took.

“By giving the forum leaders an ultimatum to accept the appointment of their chosen candidate or else they would walk…those kinds of ultimatums don’t really wash in the Pacific, and it was viewed fairly poorly that they did that.”

Tess Newton Cain, the project lead for the Pacific Hub at the Australia-based Griffiths Asia Institute, told Newsroom she appreciated the Micronesian states’ sense that they did not feel as visible as the Polynesian and Melanesian countries within the bloc.

“There is a sense [within the forum] that they’re a long way away and it’s all too hard and too complicated.”

However, Newton Cain said Zackios’ complaint that the smaller island states did not get sufficient attention within the forum was not entirely accurate, with the states subgrouping given increased resources in recent years and dedicated annexes attached to the broader communiques produced at leaders’ meetings.

The current deputy secretary-general, Dr Filimon Manoni from the Marshall Islands, was also from the Micronesian faction – a position which she said could not be overlooked.

NZ ‘an imperfect match’

New Zealand’s role in the forum, along with that of fellow “Western” nation Australia, has also come under the microscope in the wake of the vote.

Zackios said the two countries shared a common worldview which was “an imperfect match for our subregion”, with a focus on economic integration through initiatives like the Pacer Plus trade deal less appealing to the Micronesian states who were more focused on security than trade.

Writing for The Diplomat, Chatham House associate fellow Cleo Paskal accused Australia and New Zealand of “creating a situation of fragmentation where everyone except Beijing loses” through a misplaced approach, citing a 2017 foreign policy white paper from the Australian government which spoke of “helping to integrate Pacific countries into the Australian and New Zealand economies and our security institutions”.

Powles said New Zealand had strongly rejected that proposal at the time, while it had carefully handled news of the divisions since they emerged (aside from Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta’s “odd” claim that the Micronesian plans to withdraw if Zackios was not elected had not been known until after Puna was chosen).

It was possible Mahuta could be among those to lead discussions aimed at restoring regional unity, she added, given the minister was known for her negotiating skills and had no “baggage” in the Pacific due to her brief time in the foreign affairs portfolio.

Of course, New Zealand is far from alone in having an interest in the state of what Mahuta’s predecessor Winston Peters called “a more crowded and contested strategic space”.

“What we’re going to see increasingly now, particularly if the Micronesian states do leave the forum… we run the risk of ending up with Fortress Micronesia effectively, and that militarisation of the North Pacific is very much at odds with that strong non-militarised stance of the rest of the Pacific.”

The United States has been increasing its Pacific diplomacy in recent years, in large part due to the fear of growing Chinese influence within the region.

That framing has frustrated a number of Pacific nations, who don’t want to be forced to choose between the US and China.

But the withdrawal of the Micronesian nations has added resonance in that context, given the Federated States of Micronesia, Palau and the Marshall Islands are all more closely aligned with the US through the “Compact of Free Association”.

Newton Cain believed the US would prefer the five Micronesian members to stay within the forum, but it was possible there would be “a closer cleaving of those states to the US” in the event they went ahead with withdrawal.

Powles said Palau had already welcomed the idea of an increased US military presence, while it was possible other nations within the subregion could follow.

“What we’re going to see increasingly now, particularly if the Micronesian states do leave the forum… we run the risk of ending up with Fortress Micronesia effectively, and that militarisation of the North Pacific is very much at odds with that strong non-militarised stance of the rest of the Pacific.”

Zackios himself suggested there could be more direct engagement between Micronesia and the American military’s US Indo-Pacific Command, while former US ambassador to the Pacific Steven McGann told the Georgetown panel it was possible old, US-led initiatives like the Pacific Conference of Leaders could be resuscitated.

Time for compromise

However, there is still time for compromise on either side of the Pacific divide.

Only three of the five Micronesian nations have formally started the 12-month withdrawal process, with Nauru and Kiribati the holdouts for now.

Newton Cain said it was still unclear just how solid the Micronesian bloc was in its view, while there were plenty of backroom conversations underway in the wake of the announcement.

Greater “bureaucratisation” of the secretary-general process, along with other organisational changes within the forum, could help to make a change of heart more appealing, she said, while Powles added the Micronesians themselves would need to come back to the forum and put specific demands on the table beyond the selection of Zackios.

Zackios himself said there was no easy way back for the Micronesian contingent, but noted the countries would continue to participate in other pan-Pacific organisations and could collaborate at international forums.

“Leaving the institution does not mean we are leaving the Pacific – our islands have not moved, we remain where we were on the map.”

That may be the case, but Powles said there was no underplaying the significance of an end to the Pacific Islands Forum’s decades-long united front.

“I believe it will undermine and fracture regionalism in a way we haven’t seen really since the forum’s inception in 1971.”

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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