The election of Henry Puna (from the Cook Islands) as secretary general of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) was promptly followed by Micronesian leaders threatening to withdraw their countries’ membership in the Pacific region’s preeminent political organization. This event has led commentators to proclaim the demise of Pacific regionalism as we know it.
It is obvious political leaders of the Pacific and their rhetoric animate the regionalism project, and their desire for illustrious positions in regional organizations induces divisive lobbying exercises. In the process we lose sight of the actual drivers of Pacific regionalism. Eric Shibuya observed that the PIF has “refused to take the next step in its evolution, from regional organization to regional Community,” choosing instead to remain as “an organization of endless (and useless) discussion.” However one can also argue that the informality of the PIF also provides space for political wrangling and consensus building.
Tangible outcomes of regionalism can demonstrate the relevance of regionalism to Pacific peoples, and offset the unnecessary preoccupations with leadership slots in regional organizations. For this to happen, regional priorities and visions must be mainstreamed into the domestic affairs and programs of member states in the Pacific. This means that the personnel and domestic capacity of Pacific states and territories are attuned to regional priorities and visions. Tess Newton Cain rightly points out the dilemma: “The regionalism project has no political currency at [the] national level. In many Pacific island countries, politics are avowedly and doggedly local in nature.” While officials in regional organizations seek to understand the adaptive capacities of the regional architecture, it is the international-domestic interface of policy coordination that is least understood.
Indeed, foreign relations, generally, does not feature in the national priorities of states in the Pacific, and regionalism is the unintended casualty. Disconnectedness afflicts domestic and external policy coordination in Pacific states. The absence of regional and national convergence points affects reporting and monitoring, peer-to-peer reviews, and lackluster efforts to domesticate regional agendas in the national contexts of Pacific states and territories. Pacific Island leaders are good at issuing statements or aligning themselves with regional commitments. However, as Newton Cain notes, upon “returning to their homeports and the realities of managing domestic politics and polities, enthusiasm wanes rapidly.”
Whatever grand schemes regional leaders may envision, ultimately, the momentum is lost because no domestic actors are primed to follow up and implement regional agendas. The ADB-Commonwealth Secretariat some time ago confirmed that less than 50 percent of the Forum Economic Ministers Meeting decisions from 2002 to 2004 were implemented in Pacific member states. Clearly, everyone is not on the same page.
In light of present calls for reviewing and reforming the regional architecture, the manner in which member states domesticate regionalism must be understood. To what levels, and through what specific mechanisms can regional agendas get integrated into the domestic programs of member states of the Forum? And how can momentum be sustained for the long haul?
Here, the Reforming the Pacific Regional Institutional Framework (RIF) report of 2006 is informative. The report states that “national mechanisms often lack the capacity to respond to regional activities adequately or absorb the assistance available.” To address this disconnect in the regional-national nexus, the RIF report suggested “establishing offices of the regional organizations or placing staff members in each member country and each member territory.” Here, a direct linkage by members of the PIF to regional organizations is envisaged.
The RIF report also recommended the inclusion of a third pillar (complementing the political and technical pillars) in the regional architecture. To facilitate regionalism, regional diplomacy, and advancing regional development projects, the third pillar recommends bringing together all of the regional organizations concerned with education and/or training. Regional visions and priorities can be visible in the domestic planning of member states and territories if there is actual utilization of existing regional organizations by technocrats. Geographical fragmentation and its associated costs necessitate short-term immersion and induction programs.
Political leaders of Forum member states interact on an annual basis to chart the course of the region. It is logical, therefore, that government officials, technocrats, and policy practitioners in member states and territories of the Pacific are provided a venue for aligning their work plans and knowledge of regional agendas. In its assessment, the RIF report contends that the Pacific Island Forum Secretariat (PIFS) should have the “responsibility for coordinating its activities with the new technical organisation and the academic and training group to ensure that the decisions of Forum Leaders (and ministers), including those contained in the Pacific Plan, are implemented.” After the Pacific Plan was superseded by the “Framework for Pacific Regionalism” in 2014, the worry is that these regional agendas have never been accounted for in terms of their implementation record.
Capacity-building and the alignment of the technical focus on regional agendas is nothing new. When the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations Plus negotiations began in May 2008, Australia, recognizing its importance to intraregional trade, suggested the idea of a “‘trade fellowship’ program that would see trade officials from each of the FICs [Forum Island Countries] attend a capacity building program (on negotiating new FTAs) at the Institute for International Trade (based at the University of Adelaide).” At that time, an effort at regional coordination toward achieving a trade agreement with the FICs provided the impetus for Australia’s commitment. Ironically, however, member states and territories of the PIF are unable to demonstrate the same level of commitment to coordination and capacity-building toward regionalism.
The PIF has a critical role to play in enlisting the support and interest of states and territories in domesticating regional agendas. Without a regional convergence point in the Pacific Islands, efforts at regional coordination have understandably been inexistent. The threats by Micronesian leaders to withdraw their countries from the PIF provide a compelling reason to rethink the place of regionalism in the domestic affairs of member states and territories. If national interests and negligible attention continue, Pacific regionalism is nothing more than a meaningless goal for Pacific islanders.