Will a weakening regionalism affect Tonga?
By Kalafi Moala
Tonga – Murmurings have already been going on about a possible Micronesian boycott of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) as the region prepared for the appointment of a new Secretary General to replace the outgoing Dame Meg Taylor of PNG, who has held the position for over six years.
Micronesian leaders claim it was their turn to have someone from Micronesia occupy this key regional role. The role is supposed to rotate by sub-region according to Micronesian leaders.
But when the time came for a long and indecisive meeting in a Special Leaders’ Retreat, they could not reach consensus, and so the appointment process went to a vote. It resulted in three eliminations, and the final vote, which took place after midnight, was between the candidate from Micronesia and the split decision winner, Mr. Henry Puna, former Prime Minister of the Cook Islands.
The losing Micronesian candidate was Marshall Islands Ambassador to the United States, Gerald Zackious. The vote was 9-8 in Puna’s favor. And so a new Secretary General for PIF was elected, even at the cost of a sure weakening of regionalism, particularly, as it applies to Micronesia.
The other contenders were Tonga’s economist, Amelia Kinahoi Siamomua; Fiji’s former Foreign Minister Ratu Inoke Kubuabola; and Jimmie Rodgers of the Solomon Islands, former Director General of the Pacific Community.
But what was controversial this time around was Micronesia’s insistence there was a “gentlemen’s agreement” that the Secretary General’s role rotate by subregion, and it was Micronesia’s turn.
But Melanesian and Polynesian countries backed their own candidates, and ignored the threat posed by Micronesia to leave the Forum. Questions were raised whether PIF really needed Micronesia, and whether Micronesia had any need for the Forum.
While the news of the appointment of the new Secretary General for PIF was still fresh in people’s minds, Palau informed the Fiji government that it is closing its embassy in Suva and “will be terminating its participation in the Pacific Islands Forum following the failure of Micronesia’s candidate to be selected as the Forum’s new Secretary General.”
Journalist Bernadette Carreon reports from Palau that a diplomatic note sent to Fiji’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed Palau’s disappointment: “The process regarding the appointment of the Secretary General has clearly indicated to the Republic of Palau that unity, regionalism, and the Pacific Way no longer guide the Forum.”
“In this difficult global economic situation, and without further participation in the Pacific Islands Forum,” the note says, “The Republic of Palau cannot justify its current embassy expense in Suva, Fiji.”
The embassy closure is effective from 28 February.
The weakening of regionalism does not fare well for the Pacific Islands, as there are major common issues among them, they need to work hand-in-hand to advance core issues affecting the region on the global stage.
Prominent among those issues are illegal fishing in the region, massive money laundering, the rise in illicit drug distribution, trade, and managing of difficult relations with major aid donor partners like Australia, China, and the European Union.
With the regional disunity created by the appointment of a new Secretary General for PIF, and the highly controversial deportation of USP’s Vice Chancellor, the future of PIF or USP is not what is in question, but rather the future of regionalism in the Pacific, something the islands cannot do without.
It is interesting that Fiji sits in the center of these two incidents happening the same week, a host to PIF and USP, yet the leadership role and influence of its government in these two institutions has come under fire and seriously questioned.