SAMOA OBSERVER – By Tina Mata’afa-Tufele, 12/02/2021
The Pacific Islands Forum (P.I.F.) is not falling apart but if five Micronesian states do quit the international body Pacific cohesion will suffer from unprecedented fracture, a security expert says.
Dr. Anna Powles told the Samoa Observer a communique signed by five Micronesian states threatening to exit the Forum did not spell the end of the region’s leading economic and diplomatic grouping.
“The P.I.F. isn’t falling apart but if the five Micronesian states do exit at the end of the year, it will significantly fracture regionalism. Micronesian states exiting the P.I.F. fractures regionalism in a way we haven’t seen before,” she said via email.
“It has also occurred in the lead up to a review of the regional architecture so the P.I.F. will be working hard to negotiate how it will engage with the Micronesian President’s Summit as the M.P.S. seeks to reposition itself as a strengthened and emboldened subregional organisation.”
Dr. Powles is a senior lecturer at Massey University’s Centre for Defence and Security Studies in New Zealand.
Palau, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Nauru, and the Federated States of Micronesia, all of whom said they will leave the Forum this week, are all important member states, Dr. Powles said.
She said that the P.I.F. provided a critical “buffer” for competition in the region.
“The P.I.F. under the leadership of Dame Meg Taylor has been a critical buffer between the region and wider strategic competition,” said Dr. Powles.
“The P.I.F. has demonstrated the resilience and strength of the region working collectively.”
The P.I.F.’s Secretary-General vote was conducted by secret ballot so it is unclear who voted for the successful new Secretary-General, Henry Puna from the Cook Islands.
But the former Prime Minister defeated the Marshall Islands’ Ambassador Gerald Zackios, the Micronesians’ pick for the seat, she said.
The Forum’s Micronesian bloc had believed that it was Mr. Puna’s turn to occupy the top job, as part of a gentleman’s agreement to ensure regional rotation among Forum leaders.
“In addition to the subregional dynamics, the outcome does reflect existing concerns about geopolitical agendas – whether that by the U.S., Australia, New Zealand or China,” said Dr. Powles.
The door is open to the respective signatories to potentially remain with the P.I.F., she notes.
“However, there would likely need to be concessions made in order for any of the Micronesian states to remain with the P.I.F. These would be face-saving options and provide a collaborative path forward,” Dr. Powles said. TM By Tina Mata’afa-Tufele, 12/02/2021