Who blew up the Forum?

In all the analysis following the decision of the five Micronesian countries to exit the Pacific Islands Forum after their candidate failed to become the next Secretary General (SG), one question remains unanswered: who is responsible for this body-blow to Pacific regionalism?

One position is to blame the Micronesians. Perhaps they should have been less retaliatory in their approach, and rather than quit, resolved to try again next time.

As Transform Aqorau has eloquently argued, this would be unfair. The Micronesian countries had decided on their position well in advance of the leadership contest. Their candidate, Gerald Zackios, a diplomat, seemed reasonable, as did their argument that it was their turn. The countries warned as a group in advance that they would walk away if they did not get their candidate up. How then, when he failed, could they not?

Kevin Rudd has decided to blame Australia for the fiasco, but the fact is that a majority of Pacific countries objected to a candidate, who, as one of us noted late last year was  “the firm favourite”, and whose election “should have been a mere formality”, as Maureen Penjueli recently put it. Was Zackios’ defeat rational?

We know that the final vote was eight for Zackios, and nine for Henry Puna, the former Cook Islands PM and Polynesian candidate who defeated him. Voting was confidential, so we can only guess who voted for whom. All five Micronesian countries (FSM, Marshall Islands, Palau, Nauru and Kiribati) surely supported Zackios. Similarly, all six Polynesian countries (Samoa, Tonga, Niue, Cook Islands, Tuvalu and French Polynesia) likely went for Puna. That leaves six (Fiji, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Australia and New Zealand; New Caledonia was absent).

Surely, it was in the interests of the remaining six to support Zackios. Why risk splitting the Forum when these countries didn’t have a candidate in the race? Yet three of them supported Puna.

The Palau president has said that Australia and New Zealand supported Puna, and the PNG PM has (belatedly) said that he supported Zackios. Views and rumours abound on who backed whom. The truth is that, sadly, we just don’t know.

Whatever the precise voting configuration, the question remains: why did those who voted for Puna risk blowing up the Forum?

That is a difficult question to answer. Misunderstandings and confusion on the night no doubt played a role. Perhaps, as veteran Marshall Islands Journalist Giff Johnson suggested, other countries did want to retaliate against the threat of the Micronesians to leave. Perhaps, they didn’t take their threat to leave seriously.

Whatever the precise reason or mix of reasons, the hard truth revealed by the SG selection and subsequent split is that member countries just don’t take the Forum that seriously. And that in turn is because so little rides on membership.

On the one hand, the costs from leaving the Forum are low. It is not like the UK leaving the EU. One can leave the Forum and still belong to all the other regional institutions, such as the University of the South Pacific, the Pacific Community, the Forum Fisheries Agency, and so on. No aid or trade deals ride on being a Forum member.

On the other, the benefits from being a Forum member are not that great. The Forum has tried to drive change in the Pacific, through first the Pacific Plan and then the Framework for Pacific Regionalism. It has failed both times. While it has some worthy initiatives to its credit, the Forum is now mainly, as the name suggests, a talking-shop, in which declarations can be made, and views shared. A bit like APEC: a regional organisation whose main function is to provide a forum for leaders to meet; a good idea, but something that excites few.

In sum, while there are definitely some benefits to being a member of the Forum, they aren’t overwhelming, and the costs to leaving to make a point are low.

“Who blew up the Forum?” is perhaps a question too difficult to answer. Why so many countries were willing to take the risk of a split is easier to explain: the Pacific Islands Forum simply isn’t that important to its members.

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Stephen Howes

Stephen Howes is the Director of the Development Policy Centre and a Professor of Economics at the Crawford School.

Sadhana Sen

Sadhana Sen is the Regional Communications Adviser at the Development Policy Centre.

4 Comments

  • I’m late to this, but it seems to me that the Pacific Islands Forum “simply isn’t that important to its members” might be correct if the measure of the body is deep regional integration or the regional provision of services. However I would argue that the value of Pacific regionalism is, as much as anything, linked with the assertion of Pacific regional identity, and as a forum for collective diplomacy in pursuit of shared interests. As Greg Fry explains, Pacific island societies have deployed a regional identity “as a shield against global forces” and regionalism has been embraced by island leaders, not as a means to achieve market efficiencies or to pursue deeper integration, as per the model of regionalism in Europe, but rather to achieve political ends. Thus, Pacific regionalism has served as an “arena for negotiating globalisation, as a source of regional governance through agreed norms, as a regional political community, and as a diplomatic bloc” (Fry 2019. Framing the Islands: pp.21).

  • Thanks but I cannot agree that the Forum has been a failure nor provides any value to its members either. As a former Forum staff member, it is difficult to get the easy criticism that the Forum is only a “talk shop” and nothing more substantive and little to offer in terms of trade or aid agreements. Through the Forum and its processes, there have been some important developments in fisheries, climate change/disaster response and improving regional cooperation to COVID-19 that show the value of the body to the region. In terms of funding, the Forum is a common entry point for development partners such as the EU and it save a lot of time in consultations for better access. It has an important coordination role amongst the other regional agencies and balances out some of the agency mission creep that occurs from time to time (driven often by donor funding). Fewer members can only lead to further shopping around by marginal development partners looking for short-term engagements. The value of a regional plan is a hard sell for but the review of the Pacific Plan and the introduction of the Framework for Pacific Regionalism has been important in focusing the political imperative for a region whose voice on critical issues such as oceans and climate change are strongest when combined and programmes more easily developed. It is also important to recall that with the problems faced by the Forum when Fiji was excluded from Forum activities and the development of the PIDF had many commentators writing the Forum off. Regardless of the changes, it has stayed the course and the reforms and changes developed by the outgoing SG in terms of finance and decision making can only make the Pacific cause stronger and clearer. Lastly, the common issues that bind the region will ensure that all the Pacific will remain united on many issues in the future.

    • Hi Scott, We don’t say, as you claim we do, that the Forum has been a failure, or that it provides no value to its members. We say “In sum, while there are definitely some benefits to being a member of the Forum, they aren’t overwhelming, and the costs to leaving to make a point are low.” That seems accurate, and consistent with what has just happened. Regards, Stephen

      • Thanks Stephen for your response, I do enjoy reading the articles and the analysis provided by all the contributors to the Blog.

        I am sorry for using the harsher work of “failure” but I was drawing this from when I read that the key initiatives of the Forum (the Pacific Plan and the Framework for Pacific Regionalism) had failed. If this is so, then the whole raison d’etre of the Forum and its Secretariat have failed as they are not able to provide their members with the environment to progress the Leaders’ vision for the Forum. We should also acknowledge that the region’s narrative changes and has to be updated while a 2050 focus might be longer than some might suggest it is a valuable process for the countries and partners.

        One other matter, if Forum membership is providing so little value for the members then the decision on who held the position of Secretary-General would mean virtually nothing, hence, the position of the Micronesian countries would then not make any sense. So I think this recent round for the SG showed that there is still a lot of interest in the leadership that is shaping the future of the Forum and its Secretariat.

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