By Graeme Dobell

The slow-motion crash of Micronesia’s break with the Pacific Islands Forum has reached the one-year mark.

Back on 8 February 2021, the Micronesia five—the Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru and Palau—announced they would withdraw from the Pacific Islands Forum. Having lost the vote to elect a new PIF secretary-general, Micronesia expressed ‘great disappointment’ and declared there was ‘no value’ staying in the forum.

Each of the five then started the one-year process of leaving the PIF, and those individual exit points will arrive in coming months.

The PIF is set to lose nearly a third of its members, shrinking back towards the identity it carried from 1971 to 2000—the South Pacific Forum—grouping Polynesia, Melanesia, Australia and New Zealand.

More than a tiff inside the PIF, great damage is being done to ideas of region and regionalism and the Blue Pacific; to the interests of the Pacific’s subregions; and to the role of key powers Australia, New Zealand and Fiji.

The conditions for the smash were announced in October 2020, when Micronesia’s leaders issued a communiqué threatening to withdraw from the forum if the secretary-general job didn’t go to their candidate, Gerald Zackios, Marshall Islands’ ambassador to the United States and former Marshalls foreign minister.

Five months later, at the forum summit on 03 February 2021, PIF leaders instead voted 9 to 8 to appoint Henry Puna, former prime minister of the Cook Islands, as secretary-general of the forum secretariat.

After that one-vote loss, Micronesia announced it saw no worth in belonging to a PIF ‘that does not respect established agreements, including the gentlemen’s agreement on sub-regional rotation’.

A Micronesian had only once been secretary-general. It was their turn, they proclaimed loudly, and the promise was the job would rotate to Micronesia. The trouble with gentlemen’s agreements in politics and diplomacy is that there aren’t many gentle people in these trades (men or women) and they’re cagey about agreeing too precisely on what’s actually agreed.

Five nations had nominated candidates and the contest got complicated. A virtual summit doesn’t offer the chance for face-to-face politics, be it a quiet chat over coffee or tough talk during dinner. The vote ‘put the Pacific way and leaders’ wisdom to the test’.

Palau’s president, Surangel Whipps Jr, said Micronesia had no choice but to abandon the PIF after being ‘thoroughly and publicly disregarded’. Whipps pointed to Australia, New Zealand and Fiji as three key votes that went against Micronesia in that 9-to-8 count:

Australia, which had promised not to ‘influence the process’ and instead ‘to simply get behind the consensus candidate,’ could have declined to break this tie. It could have abstained in search of actual ‘consensus.’ New Zealand could have done the same, as could have Fiji, home of the Forum headquarters.

The lack of leadership by PIF’s strongest members could hardly be more jarring.

In voting against Micronesia, Australia, New Zealand and Fiji certainly disavowed any tacit or gentleperson’s deal. And threats can provoke pushback.

The Canberra version is that Australia voted for Puna because he was the best candidate, because Foreign Minister Marise Payne had a high regard for the former prime minister of Cook Islands, and because of doubts that Micronesia would do as it threatened.

Canberra’s view was that Micronesia was holding a gun to its own head. Not enough thought was given to the danger that the gun was aimed at the PIF.

Fiji had got into the race for the job by nominating its former foreign minister Inoke Kubuabola. Fiji had never before sought the secretary-general position; having the secretariat based in Suva is a permanent form of influence. Fiji claims creation rights for the forum and the consensus creed of the ‘Pacific way’, one reason why Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama was forum chair during its 50th anniversary year.

Bainimarama, though, puts less value on the PIF than previous Fijian leaders. He still carries the scars of Fiji’s expulsion from the PIF (2009–2014) during his supremo years.

New Zealand’s vote was that of a nation that more than ever views the Pacific ‘through the prism of Polynesia’. While Australia may have misjudged its call on the PIF job, New Zealand seems to have voted the Polynesian line as a matter of solidarity and values.

Suva, Canberra and Wellington had lost sight of the integrity of the PIF as a core interest.

Visiting Palau in December to open Australia’s new embassy (part of a pre-crash pledge to put Oz embassies into every PIF member), Payne put that concern clearly: ‘Of course, the matter of the unity of the Pacific Island Forum is one in which Australia has a strong interest. We firmly believe that we are stronger together as a region.’

When the United Nations secretary-general, Antonio Guterres, met the Pacific leaders in September to commemorate the PIF’s 50 years, he made a similar pitch about a strong, united Pacific voice, especially on climate change.

The coming crash means everyone loses. Even China suffers, because Micronesia outside the PIF will turn more than ever to the traditional relationship with the US.

The time for a compromise ticks away.

The PIF summit last August pointed to the need for a ‘Political Dialogue Mechanism which seeks to secure the solidarity and unity of the Forum family’. Micronesia is offered a ‘balanced reform package that respects the equality of all members’.

The forum keeps saying, ‘We hear you. We’re sorry. We’ll change. The secretary-general usually gets two three-year terms. We promise Puna will get only three years. You can have it next. It won’t be a gentlemen’s agreement—we’ll put it in writing. Please don’t go.’

The Micronesia five still stand together, heading for the exit. The most hesitant about leaving seems to be Marshall Islands, a reflection of domestic politics and the balance between pro- and anti-Zackios forces as much as affection for the forum.

The PIF’s August summit called for a face-to-face leaders meeting in January 2022, to try to clinch a reform package that would give Micronesia enough face and reason to stay. Obviously, Covid nixed those plans.

The chance of a virtual summit being called in coming weeks depends on Micronesia being prepared to step back and accept a deal. Not much sign of that. Yet. The crash keeps unfolding.