Formalizing custom . . .
Several Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) leaders agreed on Tuesday to stop the five Micronesian members from leaving the group at the end of June, a move that would have broken up the 18-member regional body. In February 2021, the Micronesian members – Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru and Palau – vowed to leave the organization over a leadership change dispute. Per PIF custom, the forum’s sub-regional groups of Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia took turns filling the forum’s secretary-general position. Accordingly, the 2021 leadership spot was to go to a candidate from Micronesia, but instead, members voted in a candidate from Polynesia – the former Prime Minister of the Cook Islands, Henry Puna. At Tuesday’s meeting in Fiji, members agreed to allow Puna to complete his term in 2024 and then formalize the customary rotation, starting with Micronesia. Members also agreed to increase Micronesian representation within the forum.
Power of unity . . .
The Fiji-headquartered PIF, comprising independent countries and those with some sort of association with France, the U.S., Australia, or New Zealand, is the most influential dialogue mechanism in the region. PIF unity raises the economic and political clout of individual Pacific states. It has helped the region advance common goals, including pandemic response and recovery, development of fisheries and tourism-related economies, and climate action issues. As former PIF Secretary General Dame Meg Taylor argued in May 2021, a unified PIF will be important in dealing with and asserting regional voices amidst increasing geopolitical manoeuvring and influence in the region, primarily due to China-U.S. rivalry. Newly-minted Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong’s visit to three Pacific countries within her first two weeks in office and China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s regional tour, where he bypassed the PIF, speak to this intense geopolitical attention.
China’s influence . . .
The next PIF Leaders Meeting, scheduled for mid-July, will be the first in-person meeting since 2019 due to the pandemic. Pacific leaders will have the opportunity to formally endorse Tuesday’s agreement and set the course for a reunited PIF. It is expected that China, as a PIF dialogue member, may try to pitch a revised version of the multilateral security and economic deal Pacific leaders rebuffed last week. The meeting will also be an opportunity for the PIF to keep building on its long-standing commitment to climate action, including further developing its 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent that aims to empower and strengthen Pacific regionalism so Pacific people can lead free, healthy, and productive lives.
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