Features | Diplomacy | Oceania

How the Pacific Islands Forum Fell Apart

The decision by Micronesian countries to leave the PIF will have major strategic implications.

By Cleo Paskal for
How the Pacific Islands Forum Fell Apart

Pacific leaders pose for a group photo during the Pacific Islands Forum in Nauru, Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2018.

Credit: Jason Oxenham/Pool Photo via AP

Five countries just pulled out of the Pacific Islands Forum. This is geopolitically more important than it might seem. It is a very serious strategic problem which raises questions that get to the heart of some of the West’s most sensitive alliances. Did Australia, New Zealand, and France  deliberately coordinate to sideline the United States in an area where China is highly active? And is the Five Eyes still fit for purpose?

Breaking down what happened – and the possible implications – highlights issues that, if not resolved, could lead to aircraft carrier-sized cracks the West’s Indo-Pacific defenses, including along the strategically crucial first and second island chains.

The Pacific Islands Forum (PIF)

The PIF is a regional political grouping that, until last week, consisted of 18 members and covered a vast, resource rich, highly strategic zone on the front line between Asia and the Americas.

For millennia the people of the region traveled widely between islands. In the 1830s, French Naval officer Jules Dumont d’Urville divided the islands and peoples of Oceania into three groups, based partially on geography and partially on his dubious interpretation of ethnicities. That’s how we ended up with the concepts of Melanesia (“islands of Black people”), Micronesia (“small islands”), and Polynesia (“many islands”). The terms are problematic among the people of the region, but have become embedded in bureaucratic structures and today each country in the region identifies politically with one of the three groups.

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Some countries in the region are fully independent, others are in what’s known as Free Association with a larger country, and some are constituent parts of larger countries. In that context, the 18 PIF members, sorted by the groups above, are:

Micronesia: Kiribati, the Marshall Islands (Compact of Free Association or COFA with the United States), the Federated States of Micronesia (COFA with the U.S.), Nauru, and Palau (COFA with the U.S.). Some of these islands are part of what strategists call the “second island chain.”

Melanesia: Fiji, New Caledonia (a collectivity of France), Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu.

Polynesia: Cook Islands (Free Association with New Zealand), French Polynesia (a collectivity of France), Niue (Free Association with NZ), Samoa, Tonga, and Tuvalu.

The two French polities – New Caledonia (Melanesia) and French Polynesia (Polynesia) – joined the PIF in 2016, with support from Australia and New Zealand.

Australia and New Zealand are also members of the PIF. For historic and economic reasons, Australia often associates with Melanesia and New Zealand with Polynesia. So, in a very, very broad way, from a “great powers” and Five Eyes perspective, the United States (and to a degree Japan) focuses on Micronesia, Australia on Melanesia, and New Zealand on Polynesia.

This dynamic, largely pushed by Canberra and Wellington, has been a persistent irritant. For example, the Micronesian states wondered why, if the French polities could join the PIF, U.S. ones such as Guam, American Samoa, and the Commonwealth of Northern Marianas couldn’t do the same. The assumption was Australia and New Zealand didn’t want them in the PIF as it would dilute the votes of their “zones of influence.”

A map showing the Pacific Islands divided into Micronesia Melanesia, and Polynesia. From Wikimedia Commons.

The Fateful Vote

The rupture this week was caused by the vote for the position of secretary general of the PIF. There had been a “gentlemen’s agreement” that the three regions rotated through the secretary general role, and this was to be Micronesia’s turn. Last September, the five Micronesian countries put forward a single candidate, the well-qualified Marshall Islands Ambassador to the United States Gerald Zackios. In the process the Micronesian countries made it clear they felt their region was disregarded in the PIF, and they considered honoring the “agreement” essential for PIF unity.

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As Palau President Surangel Whipps Jr. said, “If we want to bring the Pacific together… let’s treat everyone equally – and that’s why it’s so important that the SG [secretary general] be selected on a rotational basis.”

When the vote finally happened last week, Henry Puna, former prime minister of the Cook Islands (Polynesia) beat Zackios 9-8.  The president of Nauru, Lionel Aingimea, said Micronesian countries were treated with “total disregard.” As a result, as they had been warning for months, the five Micronesian countries announced they would be leaving the PIF.

The secretary general poll was a secret vote, but Whipps later said: “Really the two major players in this are Australia and New Zealand, and if those two didn’t vote, Micronesia would have won.” Rumors are that the two French votes also went to the Cook Islands.

Given the vote was 9-8, if Canberra, Wellington, or Paris had backed Micronesia, Zackios would have won, and the PIF would have been led by someone who knows the region at a whole, as well as having experience and connections in Washington.

Zackios as secretary general could have promoted regional unity, helped build deeper relationships between the whole of Oceania and the United States, and, as a result, created stronger partnerships among democracies big and small in this vast and important part of the Indo-Pacific. It also could have eased pathways for the Pacific Deterrence Initiative and other funding to help the people of the whole region as they try to recover from the economic devastation of COVID-19, balance the growing push from Beijing, and handle what they say is their biggest problem, climate change.

But apparently that isn’t what Australia, New Zealand, and France wanted. So, what do they want?

A Push for “Integration”

In the last few years, both Canberra and Wellington announced major new policy pushes for the Pacific Islands, although that seems to primarily apply to Melanesia and Polynesia (generally combined as the “South Pacific”). That focus can be overt. In summarizing the PIF meeting, Whipps said, “We were talking about COVID, for example, and Australian assistance to the Pacific, and clearly, when it comes to assistance, it’s focused on the South Pacific,” leaving out Micronesia (the North Pacific).

The two main pieces of policy are Australia’s “Pacific Step-up” (launched in 2016 – the same year the French joined the PIF) and New Zealand’s “Pacific Reset” (2018). According to the Australian government’s 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper:

This new approach recognizes that more ambitious engagement by Australia, including helping to integrate Pacific countries into the Australian and New Zealand economies and our security institutions, is essential to the long-term stability and economic prospects of the Pacific. Our partnership with New Zealand will be central to advancing this agenda.

It seems as though for some in Canberra and Wellington, all those independent governments making their own policies are time consuming and inconvenient. The answer is “integration.” That’s why New Zealand used tied aid to place a New Zealand police officer as police commissioner in Tonga, and why there has been such a push to get island countries to join the PACER Plus trade deal with Australia and New Zealand.

According to the New Zealand government, PACER Plus is overtly designed to “preserve New Zealand’s [and Australia’s] position against major competitors from outside of the region in the years to come.” In reality, it will give Chinese Communist Party-backed companies registered in Australia and New Zealand the same preferential pathway into the signatory Pacific Island countries. And those well-funded and politically-backed cloaked Chinese companies will be in a good position to outcompete New Zealand. A small group of policymakers in Canberra and Wellington may think they are pulling a fast one with integration, but they are actually creating a situation of fragmentation where everyone except Beijing loses.

Given many Pacific Island countries (PICs) are resistant to this sort of integration, some observers advise taking it step-by-step, including one knowledgeable Australian analyst who wrote, “The soft-and-slow approach to integration has the best chance of success, because South Pacific states will embrace the offer incrementally.”

In this context, Micronesia, with its strong ties to the United States (and Japan) is inconvenient. Canberra and Wellington have less leverage there. The security of the COFA states is covered by Washington and the COFA countries didn’t sign on to PACER Plus.

It’s possible that some in Canberra and Wellington (and with at least tacit support from Paris) thought that without the Micronesian states – and their U.S. oversight – it would be easier for them to use the PIF to advance their “integration” agenda.  So why not prompt, or at least decline to stop, an exodus? Smaller pond, bigger fish.

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The French Connection

The growing French role in the region also needs to be considered. French Polynesia alone covers an enormous area in the strategic heart of the Southern Pacific, with an EEZ of 4,541,204 square kilometers. France is a member of the “other” quad, the Quadrilateral Defense Coordination Group (France, the U.S., Australia, and New Zealand), as well as the France-Australia-New Zealand (FRANZ) agreement for humanitarian relief coordination.

It has a substantial permanent military presence in the region and is doing increasing exercises with Australia, with which it shares a maritime border. In 2016 Australia announced it would be buying a dozen French submarines. French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said, “We are married to Australia for 50 years.”

In May 2017, in a piece for The Diplomat Magazine titled “A French Pivot to Asia,” I tracked those growing ties and wrote:

Since at least the 1950s and the days of John Foster Dulles, the touchstone defense architecture of the Pacific has been the “Island Chain” concept. The idea is there are three roughly north-south island “chains” that must be controlled to contain threats from China (and Russia). Or, conversely, as seen from Beijing, these are chains China needs to control (or at least influence) to be free of maritime constraints. The first island chain contains current East and South China Sea island hotspots. The second island chain comes down east of the Philippines and includes the American Mariana Islands. The third chain runs down from Hawaii through Oceania.

The big question is whether Australia and France are contemplating drawing a fourth line in the water, one that runs not north-south, but west-east across the top of their southern Pacific position. A line, studded with military assets and regular patrols, behind which they could retreat, and regroup, in case of conflict in the central and north Pacific. Chinese money could flow south through the line, but Australia and France would signal that any military incursion would not be tolerated.

If so, our strategic map of Asia has fundamentally changed.

Their move with the PIF takes us closer to that map.

The Exclusive Economic Zones of the countries and territories of Oceania and neighboring regions. Some maritime boundaries have yet to be legally determined. Modified from Wikimedia Commons.

Where Are We Now?

There are going to be some deep reevaluations in Washington and Hawaii following the PIF break-up. The United States has recently taken the Oceania region as a whole much more seriously. In 2019 the first Pacific Islands congressional caucus was launched. The National Security Council established its first position for Oceania and Indo-Pacific security. There are increasing high level visits to the region including, in 2019, the first visit of a secretary of state to the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) and in 2020, the first visit by a defense secretary to Palau – after which Palau offered to host a U.S. base.

The obvious reason is China’s fast strategic, diplomatic, and economic advances through the region. But the subtext has been that the United States’ Five Eyes partners, Australia and New Zealand, haven’t been delivering for PIC partners, allowing for China to make those inroads. The Solomon Islands and Kiribati, both theoretically in the Australian sphere of influence (by Canberra’s account), switched recognition from Taiwan to China in 2019, setting off alarm bells. The Solomons and Kiribati are strategically located, and soaked in the blood of American troops who died there fighting back the last expansionist Asian power in battles like Guadalcanal, Butaritari, and Makin.

So, the question in Washington will be, what to do about Australia and New Zealand? In the case of Australia, there is genuine warmth and mutual respect between the U.S. and Australian militaries, and admiration for the way the country has been standing up to China, but that doesn’t mean this move won’t be countered. In the case of New Zealand, there is largely an enormous amount of exasperation.

It will also be noted that, after the vote, FSM President David Panuelo said, “For FSM, which has a one China policy, and Kiribati as well, [China] was the first country to come to us to ask that we stay in the Pacific Islands Forum.” This will raise questions about the degree of influence Beijing has in a forum that Canberra and Wellington think they run. They may consider themselves big fish, but there is a shark in their tank as well.

Panuelo also wanted to remind those outside the region that the decision to leave was what the leaders thought they had to do for the good of their countries and peoples. He said that the media is “getting some ideas wrong on their geopolitical analysis. Many focus on big countries [China] and their power instead of why small countries want to be represented fairly.”

And therein lies the way forward. Instead of thinking of the region as pawns to be played with, stolen, or “integrated,” the operational reality of each country needs to be understood so that they see partnerships as a benefit to their people. That’s one of the reasons Beijing is so successful. There are five institutes in China that research Oceania, making Beijing’s engagement (and political warfare) very effective. How many are in Australia or New Zealand?

What Are Some Options for the U.S.?

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Region-wide, it might make sense for the United States, the EU, India, and others to bolster some of the other regional organizations. The Pacific Community has 26 member countries and territories, including ones “missing” from the PIF, such as American Samoa, Guam, and Pitcairn. It has potential.

Within Micronesia, the United States and Japan (and possibly Taiwan, which is recognized by the Marshall Islands, Nauru, and Palau) might want to work together to support Micronesian partners in creating a Micronesian organization, building on the Micronesian Presidents’ Summit. Micronesia is on the front line of Chinese expansion, organized crime, illegal fishing, environmental disruptions, and more; information and resource sharing would go a long way to help bolster hard and human security.

This might also feed into the case for Japan to join the Five Eyes.

Also, renegotiating its agreements with the three COFA states should be a priority for Washington. It might also be worth raising the possibility of extending the COFA offer to Kiribati and Nauru.

As for the individual countries, they each have their own needs, and need to be understood on their own terms. For example, one of the Micronesian countries that left the forum, Nauru, spectacularly stood up to China at a recent PIF.

There are few flights in and out of Nauru, mostly to Australia, a country with which it has a difficult relationship. Facilitating direct flights from Nauru to Guam or Hawaii would let it tap into a whole new network for trade, health care education, and more.

Attention should also be paid to countries still within the PIF – rather than letting Canberra and Wellington forge on with their ill-advised, damaging, and eventually doomed “integration.” For example, Tuvalu is the only country remaining in the PIF that recognizes Taiwan. Given the influence China seems to think it has via the PIF, outreach to Tuvalu is crucial (including direct flights, trade, education, and health assistance) to help it hold the line. If New Zealand is advising Australia to “show respect” to Beijing, one can only imagine what it’ll tell Tuvalu. Perhaps Tuvalu would be interested in a U.S. COFA?

Real, stable security is aggregate – put together with patience, understanding, and trust, building block by building block. If the goal is a stable, secure, cohesive Oceania, Australia, New Zealand, and likely France just blew it apart. Now it’s up to the region and its partners to do the hard work to figure out how to put the pieces back together again, for their sake and for ours – and before Beijing does it in its own image.

Cleo Paskal is non-resident senior fellow for the Indo-Pacific at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and an associate fellow at Chatham House.