For the sake of future generations, regional unity, equity, and respect for each other must form the cornerstone of our pan-Pacific mana as we engage with the complex challenges of our time. Pacific Cooperation Foundation board members Dr Steven Ratuva and Dr Katerina Teaiwa offer their unique insights to the political crisis facing the region.
The decision by the Northern Pacific countries of Palau, Kiribati, Nauru, Republic of Marshall Islands and Federated States of Micronesia to withdraw from the Pacific Island Forum (PIF) as a result of the selection of the new Secretary General (SG) has raised serious questions about the resilience and sustainability of formal Pacific regionalism.
The withdrawal by five Micronesian countries reduces the PIF membership to thirteen (Australia, the Cook Islands, Fiji, French Polynesia, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Niue, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu) thus diminishing the organisation’s legitimacy as the peak regional body.
For years we have taken regional solidarity for granted and have not paid much attention to underlying tensions, cultural and economic hierarchies, and sub-regional divisions. It was assumed that the principles of the “Pacific Way” would carry us through in challenging times, steering our canoe through treacherous waters. But times are changing, the world is changing around us and so are the needs and expectations of individual member countries.
The PIF was set up in 1971 as a body to unite newly independent Pacific states to build up their collective strength and voices in the face of the powerful military, economic and cultural hegemony of colonial states in a politically contested Pacific region.
The crisis in the PIF not only affects regional solidarity at the geo-political level but also Pacific peoples all around the world. Many feel that their sense of cultural connectedness to the region and the mana of such kinship have been fragmented and overshadowed by national, sub-regional and donor interests, and particularly the priorities of Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand. Many are concerned about the impact of regional politics on our ability to continue to lobby for global action on critical issues such as the climate emergency.
As a way forward, a number of suggestions can be made. Firstly, the agreement for sub-regional rotation (which was originally based on an informal agreement) should be formalised to ensure that there is a sense of regional equity, diversity, fairness and balance in the way the Secretary General is selected.
Secondly, the Forum leaders, as a priority, should re-engage with the Micronesian governments through their Pacific mana, apologise, and discuss a path for return to the regional collective. They should make a firm commitment to ensuring that the next Secretary General is from Micronesia.
Thirdly, there should be fundamental reform to the highly centralised Suva/Fiji-based PIF structure to give more power and responsibility to the various sub-regions in a more equitable and just manner. Sub-regional offices should be set up as in the case of the Pacific Community.
For the sake of future generations, regional unity, equity and respect for each other must form the cornerstone of our pan-Pacific mana as we engage with the complex challenges of our time.
The Pacific Cooperation Foundation (PCF) is a non-governmental organisation which develops and implements public/private sector economic development and socio-cultural initiatives in the Pacific region. We Connect, We Inform, We Enable.
Dr Katerina Teaiwa is the Deputy Director HDR, School of Culture History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University. Dr Steven Ratuva is the Director of the Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies at the University of Canterbury.