By Stephen Dziedzic
SYDNEY,AUSTRALIA- FEBRUARY 11, 2021: 2:47PM (ABC/PACNEWS): Early on Tuesday morning, the Pacific Islands Forum split.
Five Micronesian leaders declared they were quitting the organisation, accusing other Pacific Island nations of treating them with neglect and contempt.
It’s a heavy blow for the regional body which sits at the apex of the region’s diplomatic architecture.
But what does it mean for Australia? Is there a way the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) can be patched back together? And what will happen if those efforts fail?
What caused the split?
According to the Micronesian leaders, it’s all about respect.
There are three regional groupings that make up the Pacific Islands region — Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia.
But the Micronesian nations in PIF — Palau, Nauru Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia — have sometimes complained they are relegated to the organisation’s outer orbit.
And these resentments flared into life once again when the forum’s top job — the position of secretary-general — needed to be filled.
Last year the Micronesian nations declared there was an unwritten “gentleman’s agreement” that it was their turn to fill the position, so their candidate should get the job.
More consequentially, they also publicly threatened to quit the body if they didn’t get their way.
The “Mekreos Communique” was meant to be a show of resolve. But instead it stirred resentment from several other Pacific leaders — particularly in Polynesia — who felt that Micronesia’s very public declaration was little more than political blackmail.
The prospect of consensus looked increasingly remote.
It also didn’t help that Micronesia’s candidate, Gerald Zackios, hails from the Marshall Islands. PIF’s Deputy Secretary-General Dr Filimon Manoni is also Marshallese, and some countries could not swallow both top positions going to officials from the same nation.
In the end Zackios narrowly lost to a Polynesian candidate, former Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna.
And the result left Micronesian leaders with a choice — make a humiliating retreat from their public threat, or follow through?
So they decided to follow through.
Or did they?
Is the split permanent?
It’s too early to tell.
So far only one of the five Micronesian nations, Palau, has formally initiated its immediate withdrawal.
And the final statement issued by the Micronesian leaders on Tuesday seems to leave the door ever so slightly ajar to them returning.
The first draft of the statement prepared for the leaders left little room for manoeuvre. It said that all Micronesian nations would “act swiftly like the Republic of Palau” and withdraw from the forum.
But the final signed communique is less definitive. There’s no reference to Palau and the document stresses the “final decision rests with the respective governments” in Micronesia.
The withdrawal is not immediate. The four Micronesian nations have set a timetable of one year for them to complete the process.
Australia and New Zealand hope that will give Pacific Island nations an opportunity to negotiate some sort of compromise which will allow the forum to stick together.
New Zealand’s Foreign Ministry has already declared that it hopes Micronesian leaders will reconsider their decision.
And Wednesday morning Australia’s Minister for the Pacific Zed Seselja also made it clear that Australia would do what it could to help heal the rift.
“Obviously these are sovereign nations and they’re expressing their views,” he told the ABC’s Pacific Beat programme.
But in the end neither Australia nor New Zealand are pretending they will be able to magically engineer a solution from the sidelines.
Pacific leaders will engineer their own compromise if they do decide they want to stick together.
What shape that compromise takes is another question.
One possibility: would Micronesian nations agree to stay if the forum agreed to enshrine the somewhat incorporeal “gentleman’s agreement” into a formal pact, which would see the plum secretary-general role handed to each region in turn?
Glimmers of hope?
There are certainly signs that some leaders are keen to keep on talking.
In a statement issued late Tuesday Nauru’s President Lionel Aingimea seemed to be urging Melanesian and Polynesian nations to find a compromise which all sides could live with.
“We [Micronesia] don’t want to see this friction. We want to stay united in this Blue Ocean,” it reads.
He also said he didn’t “blame” anyone for the current impasse, saying “it’s just how things have developed”.
It’s a curiously passive statement from someone who has just taken the seismic step of severing ties with the region’s top body.
Aingimea did not sound like a man who is relishing the opportunity to shrug off the shackles of PIF.
He sounded like a leader who feels his nation has been caught in inexorable political currents, and who would very much like to be offered a branch.
Still, other leaders sound less open to compromise — including the Federated States of Micronesia’s President, David Panuelo.
“Our decision is quite definitive. I mean, it’s very decisive. We’ve taken those decisions,” he said Wednesday morning.
What does it mean for Australia?
If the Micronesian nations do ultimately depart, the Pacific Islands Forum will be greatly weakened.
The consequences for Australia are substantial, but not earth-shattering.
While Pacific Island nations regularly use the forum to ramp up pressure on Australia over climate change, it also offers Australia privileged and automatic access to top-level regional discussions.
If PIF splinters, then maintaining that access and influence will require more work.
Former senior Pacific official Transform Aqorau says Australia and New Zealand will now “have to navigate through a myriad of organisations to deal with some of political issues that fall within the purview of the forum.”
But Australia is already beefing up its diplomatic presence in Micronesian nations under the Pacific Step Up, which will help Canberra maintain its ties in the North Pacific.
Jonathan Pryke from the Lowy Institute says the split will be an “unwelcome distraction” but it “won’t profoundly change the geostrategic landscape for Australia in the Pacific.”
“Having a physical diplomatic presence in the North Pacific also puts Australia in a better position to work bilaterally across the region.”
The consequences for the region are much bigger. It’s now grappling with an acrimonious regional dispute, which will only make it harder to tackle mounting existential threats, including climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The regional agenda will be on life support until leaders can physically meet again and try and find some compromise to get the Micronesian bloc back into the fold,” Pryke says.
“There are now deep rifts running across the Pacific that will take years to heal.”