The Relevance of Regionalism: Making a Case for the Pacific Islands Forum

Tennyson Dearing | Pacific Fellow

Pacific Island states share a common identity as both guardian and inheritor of the Pacific Ocean. Yet each has unique social, political, and economic characters. For the Pacific Island states’ top brass, this entails a delicate balance between two potentially opposing goals, with individual states’ needs on one hand and broader regional objectives on the other. The challenge is to steer states down the sensible path between them.


Enter the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF). Founded in 1971, the PIF aims to foster cooperation between its 18 member states and to harmonise governments’ positions on policy issues of the day. If it is not already, then certainly, the PIF is well poised to be the bedrock of regionalism in the Pacific. But as Dame Meg Taylor, Secretary General (SG) of the PIF recently acknowledged, the PIF’s relevance is a routinely-visited battleground with many questioning its place in politics.


Dame Meg’s remarks come at an important time for the region and the PIF, with growing headwinds against collective action in the Pacific and her tenure as SG set to end this month. Among those headwinds are two developments in particular.


The first is the rise of a ‘new Pacific diplomacy’ since the turn of the last decade. After Fiji was suspended from the PIF in 2009, Pacific Island states have prosecuted a more assertive brand of diplomacy, not always in keeping with the wants and needs of their neighbours. A good example is the seemingly divergent priorities highlighted by Pacific leaders at last year’s UN General Assembly.


The second, albeit related development is the rise of sub-regionalism and ‘minilateral’ engagement outside the PIF. The very existence of outfits like the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) and the Pacific Small Islands Developing States (PSIDS) coalition detract, or at least may be seen to detract from the PIF. Even more pertinent is the challenge posed by a coalition of Micronesian leaders threatening to secede from the PIF if their candidate is not chosen as the Forum’s next SG, a move that would effectively separate north and south Pacific states. The result is a Forum that is less relevant and less stable than it could or conceivably should be.


It is important to understand that subregional additions to the Pacific’s political architecture are not necessarily wholesale rejections of regionalism. Rather, they are complementary to it; they fill an important gap between what can and can’t be accomplished within the existing PIF system. However, their place should not come at the expense of a one-region, fit for purpose forum. This is crucial to the success of Pacific Island states, not least because bodies like the PIF prevent a fracturing of the ‘Pacific family’, but also, and perhaps more importantly, they are vehicles for collective action on the world stage.


This is especially relevant in the decidedly political Asian Century, as regional (and global) powers attempt to embed a rules-based order and as microstates like those of the Pacific Islands are easily overlooked. As Dame Meg suggested in response to the proposed US Blue Pacific Act, Washington may often assume that by consulting with Canberra and Wellington, it has also consulted with the Pacific Island states.


Commentators ready to sound the death knell of the PIF would be bringing out the coffin too early. While the Forum may indeed face a confidence deficit, it is likely more relevant than ever. A unified and decisive voice for the Pacific is vital if its members are to effectively tackle rising geopolitical tensions, a slow Covid-19 recovery, and the ‘real crisis’ threatening the region—climate change. Although uniting that voice will be a challenge for Dame Meg’s successor, it is crucial if the next SG is to ferry the region across the murky waters of uncertainty.


Tennyson Dearing is the Pacific Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.


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