The departure of the Micronesian states from the Pacific Forum will be a tragedy for the Pacific region. The Pacific’s visibility and effectiveness on the global stage will be reduced. While individual members will continue to have agency in their own right, the Forum draws members together and amplifies their common concerns. It has done this effectively with oceans issues, climate change and fisheries. The Micronesian countries have been at the forefront of all these issues. The Blue Pacific concept developed by the Forum explains the connections between Pacific Island nations and tells the story of the importance of the Pacific to the outside world. The Biketawa Declaration provided the basis for cross regional mutual support in troubled times and the Boe Declaration has built on it, presenting broad concepts of security that have resonated well beyond the Pacific.
Like all multilateral organisations, the Forum is imperfect. If you go digging deep in the weeds of its work, you can lose the sense of the importance of the whole. Yes, the meetings can be tedious but even in a zoom environment they provide opportunities to connect, maintain community and forge common understandings. Expanding attendance, in both numbers and level, of Dialogue partners at the annual Pacific Forum meetings in the last ten years shows the increasing profile of the Pacific and the Forum, even if discussion is constant on how to make the meetings more meaningful.
Some important areas of Pacific coordination already take place outside the Forum structure. Climate change is a UN process and much of the coordination takes place in New York. There are a number of tuna/fisheries organisations outside the Forum. The Parties to the Nauru Agreement which is centred on Micronesia plays a key role. There are important processes in the Central and Western Pacific Fisheries Commission (CWPFC). The Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA) helps coordinate the Pacific members of the CWPFC. The diversity of regional organisations and their memberships is a strength for the Pacific but it requires a centre that pulls the membership together. The Pacific Forum provides that centre. In times past, New Zealand and Australia have reinforced the Forum glue by consciously taking a Pacific-wide regional view. Recently, however, differences with Australia over climate change and New Zealand’s increasing national identification with Polynesia have diminished their focus on broad Pacific interests.
New Zealand has shifted its self-perception towards being a Pacific nation. In that process it has emphasised its Realm connections with Cook Islands, Niue and Tokelau and its special responsibilities under the Treaty of Friendship with Samoa. Large Pasifika populations that have significant political influence with both Labour and National-led governments are a part of the picture too. It is arguable that along the way New Zealand has confused its New Zealand specific relationships with and responsibilities for the Realm states and Samoa with its interests in the Pacific as a whole. We frequently speak of ‘the Pacific’ and ‘Pasifika’ when what we refer to is Polynesia. In our minds, we have divided the Pacific into areas of influence where we have a greater responsibility for Polynesia, Australia for Melanesia and the US (not a Forum member) for Micronesia. Our metropolitan partners may not see this division so starkly. Australia is opening posts in Polynesia, the US is looking to lift its engagement across the Pacific. Our Pacific partners may not see these divisions either. There has been critical comment on social media and elsewhere in Melanesia that “Melanesians are not Pasifika”.
Wise heads are working to address the circumstances that have created the fissure in the Pacific. Hopefully they will come up with a path that brings us all back together. New Zealand has deep interests in this process but it is one that needs to be led by Pacific Island nations, not the metropolitan nations. That said, we are partners and in our own actions we can help restore a Pacific-wide sense of community.
Whatever decisions by Micronesian nations with respect to the Forum endure, we should clarify for ourselves the distinctions between New Zealand’s important relationships with Polynesia which are essentially either domestic or bilateral, and New Zealand’s relationships with the broader Pacific which is an international relations concern. A new Pacific Strategy building on the Reset should consciously take a broad perspective of New Zealand’s Pacific interests that encompasses all its parts. A practical step in this direction would be to open a diplomatic Post in Micronesia to significantly improve channels of communication westwards.
Bio: Marion Crawshaw is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington and a former New Zealand High Commissioner to Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands.
Image credit: Pacific Forum leaders at the August 2019 meeting in Tuvalu, courtesy MFAT website.