Alexi Heazle | Indo-Pacific Fellow
Early February 2021 marked a disastrous period for Pacific regionalism. Five Micronesian leaders–from Nauru, the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), Marshall Islands, Kiribati and Palau–followed through on their threats to leave the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) after the controversial voting-in of Henry Puna, former Cook Islands Prime Minister, as Secretary-General of the organisation.
The PIF is crucial as it gives the region the ability to speak with a unified voice on key issues such as climate change, regional security and pandemic response strategies. This kind of fracture risks smaller island nations losing their collective ability to lobby for concerns on a global stage.
The PIF fracturing follows perceptions amongst Micronesian states that a "gentlemen's agreement" to rotate leadership between the Pacific regions of Melanesia, Polynesia and Micronesia failed to be honoured, with Micronesian candidate Gerald Zackios unsuccessful in his bid for leadership.
As members of the organisation, it grants Australia and New Zealand more influence in the Pacific, allowing us to build relationships with Pacific nations to the exclusion of external powers like China. A fractured PIF will undercut these advantages and constrain Canberra and Wellington's ability to work with the region as a whole on economic, security and environmental challenges. Jonathan Pryke, director of the Pacific Islands Program at the Lowy Institute, stated that "it's an exclusive club that we are a part of and China isn't".
So what does this mean for great power competition in the Pacific region? Despite concerns in Canberra and Wellington that Beijing will seize fractured ties as a way to consolidate influence in the region, the situation does not in itself award greater influence to China, or the US for that matter.
However, there are important questions around whether the situation creates a power vacuum waiting to be filled in the Pacific region. Relevant to this discussion is the fact that Micronesian states are traditionally most wary of Beijing’s influence and more willing to work with Washington and its partners, in contrast to its neighbours in the Southern Pacific.
Palau, the FSM and the Marshall Islands are bound to the United States (U.S.) through the Compacts of Free Association (CFA) agreement. This allows unrestricted U.S. military access to the above Micronesian territories, in exchange for extensive U.S. financial support and visa-free entry into the U.S. The above countries, in addition to Nauru, also recognise Taiwan diplomatically as opposed to China, signalling attitudes towards Chinese influence.
In contrast, some South-Western Pacific nations have built closer ties with Beijing in recent years. The Belt-Road Initiative (BRI) is active in the region, with criticisms of unsustainable levels of debt for Pacific countries through an excess of built infrastructure projects. These are relevant for Vanuatu, Samoa, and particularly Tonga, where China holds almost half of public debt.
Simultaneously, recent success in Chinese efforts to secure switches in diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China by Taiwan's handful of remaining Pacific allies points to a growing Chinese influence on Pacific domestic politics. This stands in stark contrast to Micronesian attitudes towards Beijing–Palau's president's strong stances against "Chinese bullying" in recent weeks, as well as Nauru standing up against China at a recent PIF are both examples of this.
The departure of Micronesian states means that the central multilateral institution in a crucial strategic region for Washington and its partners has lost the most sceptical voices of Beijing's activities and open to U.S. and allied leadership. Without the Micronesian sub-group advocating for U.S. interests, the PIF is far less likely to be interested in U.S. priorities and perspectives.
The situation also reflects a serious strategic problem relating to alliances between Canberra, Wellington and Washington. Intentionally or not, Australia and New Zealand (as members of the PIF) swayed the vote to appoint the new Secretary-General (as it was 9-8). Their decision to vote against Micronesia relates to their historic support and engagement with the South Pacific. Palau's president, Surangel Whipps, told the ABC it was clear Australia had supported Puna because they wanted to preserve their influence over the sub-region. This fits with Canberra and Wellington's push for "integration" in the region, through initiatives such as the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations (PACER) Plus trade deal. For Australia and New Zealand, the Micronesian sub-region's interests are less of a priority–their strong ties to the U.S. means that Canberra and Wellington have less leverage there.
By swaying the vote against Micronesia in the hopes of consolidating influence over the Pacific, Canberra and Wellington have facilitated the fracture and consequent risk of a power vacuum in the Pacific. Instability in a central multilateral forum like the PIF means that the Pacific becomes open to further incursions of influence by external powers operating outside of the interests of Washington and its partners. It also reflects a major sign of disunity between the U.S. and its partners and their "collective" Indo-Pacific vision.
If Australia is to work with its partners in Washington, Wellington and elsewhere in establishing a common strategy for the Indo-Pacific, it must coordinate more effectively in unforeseen crisis situations like the PIF fracture. U.S. President Joe Biden has the opportunity to work with partners like Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Taiwan to signal U.S. support for a PIF that represents the voices of all Pacific Islanders, including those in Micronesia. Whether or not this will be acted upon is a different question.
Alexi Heazle is the Indo-Pacific Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.