Henry Heritage | Pacific Fellow
The premier intergovernmental organisation for Pacific alliance and economic cooperation, the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), is entering a pivotal phase next month when member states congregate to select their next Secretary General (SG). In what is typically a diplomatic process of negotiation, this distinguished decision is inciting an internal backlash that is bordering on a potential fallout.
A coalition of Micronesian members has boldly threatened to formally withdraw from the PIF if their nominee for SG, Marshallese Diplomat Gerald Zackios, is not chosen to replace the outgoing Dame Meg Taylor. Although, what may be initially interpreted as a poor or reckless move from the Micronesian members, might have some valid justification.
The extreme threat to cede from the PIF is a manifestation of Micronesia’s current discontent for their standing within the organisation. Historically, Micronesia has been disproportionality underrepresented in the PIF, only having one of their nominees selected as SG in the organisation’s 50 years of operation. In response to this, the threat of withdrawal is being rationalised by a claim of an unofficial ‘gentleman’s agreement’, which asserts that PIF member states would abide by a rotation system for the SG position.
Reflecting the significance of the SG position and the weight placed on equal representation in intergovernmental forums like the PIF, the Micronesian members’ discontent could be reasonably justified. However, their resolve is not, and the risk of internal fallout of the PIF would have drastic consequences for Pacific regionalism and Australia’s interests.
Decades of geostrategic multilateralism and cooperative political efforts have emboldened the Pacific and solidified a meaningful regional identity centred on mutual interests. The benefits of this geopolitical Pacific alliance cannot be undervalued. Collective security and cooperative regional development have been fundamental to the emergence of economic value in the Pacific.
Logically, regionalism and a shared regional agenda have been consistently endorsed by the PIF as a method for securing the Pacific and mutually utilising its potential. This was formally put forward in the 2005 Pacific Plan, which accurately asserted that Pacific partnerships centred on multilateral regional principles and governance should define Pacific development.
The threat of an internal fallout within the PIF would drastically damage the regional identity of the Pacific. A potential cessation of Micronesian states would legitimise a separate “North Pacific” region distinct from the surrounding southern neighbours.
The ramifications of this would be substantial. Pacific Island states are made up of minor populations dispersed within the most pertinent geopolitical battleground of the next decade, the Pacific Ocean. Even a partially dissolved PIF inhibits the region’s ability to represent a Pacific interest for its highly contested home as well as provide a Pacific consensus on global forums.
Pacific development is ultimately determined upon the success of a comprehensive regional strategy, in line with the multilateral policy of the PIF’s Blue Pacific Continent. Whilst the initial impact of five Micronesian members ceding from the PIF could be viewed as relatively tolerable, it would radically impact the future development of Pacific regional security.
Amongst the internal PIF disputes, Australia is also a major stakeholder in the outcome of its membership developments and consequently has a particular interest in the SG selection process. As a PIF member and a principal partner in the Pacific, Australia will be wary of a Micronesian fallout.
A sub-regional Pacific defined by a separate North Pacific region would not only hurt Australia by decreasing the membership of the PIF, but it would expose the region’s vulnerability to competing global powers. This is a realistic threat in a scenario where Micronesian states distance themselves from the South Pacific and shift their partnership and trade reliance on other states, namely China.
As it stands, Southeast Asian states dominate trade in the North Pacific, particularly in Palau and Federated States of Micronesia. Australia loses a unique partnership with Micronesian region if the five members are to withdraw from the PIF, which would likely embolden their relations with their current Asian alliances.
However, as precarious as this situation is for Australia, it must be cautious not to overstep its position. The PIF’s purpose is to strengthen Pacific regionalism, not a forum to protect individual state interests. The Micronesian members’ threat to withdraw would objectively weaken the Pacific, but Australia must only respond in the context of prioritising the Pacific, not to assert a position relating to its own competition with China.
The threat of a Micronesian retreat and the formalisation of a North Pacific region would be detrimental to Pacific regionalism. This process would impede the PIF's strategic regional development, reverse the progression towards a Blue Pacific Continent, and hinder the legitimacy of Pacific intergovernmental representation. Although responding to the threat may be a difficult task to navigate for other PIF members, such as Australia, empathetic solutions for maintaining Micronesia in the PIF must be prioritised.
Henry Heritage is the Pacific Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.