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What is to become of Pacific regionalism

In the September/October 2019 issue of this magazine, I reflected on the ‘Death of Pacific Regionalism?’ (also known as Pacific Islands Forum). It was a leading question in my mind at the time having just witnessed signs of fracture. I concluded as follows: “There is disunity within the collective. The collective’s power is stymied. The collective has been manifesting malaise that points to, inter alia, inherent structural and compositional flaws. In the meantime, intense geopolitics in the region require self-re-examination of the Forum with fresh vigour, purpose and destiny. The proposed 2050 strategic plan needs to look seriously at refitting Pacific regionalism anew for the new challenges tomorrow.”

The fracture became a break when disunity reigned in February. The five Micronesian members withdrew their PIF membership following the divisive events of the virtual election of new Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat (PIFS) Secretary General (SG) Henry Puna.

The divisive mood prevailing at the time was not aided by Fiji’s deportation of Vice Chancellor and President (VCP) Professor Pal Ahluwalia of the regional University of the South Pacific (USP) about the same time as the elections. Fiji, in the eyes of many PIF/USP members, had been undermining the University’s governance structure, specifically the work of the USP Council. These members see such intervention by Fiji as unwelcome and as an unduly exercise of its influence – it being a large contributor to the University budget, the largest beneficiary and as its host.

The Micronesians’ withdrawal resulted essentially from their dissatisfaction with the loss of their candidate for the SG position when it was their turn for PIFS leadership role under a long-standing ‘gentlemen’s agreement’. In the eyes of the Micronesians, the unwritten rule of behaviour for the group was not honoured. National politics, subregional and geopolitical sensibilities should have gone in the way of regional solidarity, in their view.

The Micronesians’ withdrawal of their membership put an end to Pacific regionalism or PIF, as we have known it since 2000. Regional Leaders then had agreed to switch name of the group from the South Pacific Forum (SPF) to PIF to reflect its wider country membership at the time.

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