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‘Our future looks secure’: Pacific Islands Forum unite

Wednesday 22 February 2023 | Written by RNZ | Published in National, Regional


‘Our future looks secure’: Pacific Islands Forum unite
Prime Minister Hon. Mark Brown Supplied/PIF

Regional leaders will meet this week at the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) Special Leaders Retreat in Fiji. "We have come through a period of some fracture," incoming PIF Chair and Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown said. "Re-establishing those ties, re-establishing relationships, that's going to be an important part of the side events of this meeting."

A number of issues are on the agenda, and among the top items will be welcoming Kiribati back into the fold.

"The Forum leaders meeting will be a happy occasion," PIF Secretary-General Henry Puna said.

The Suva Agreement is to be discussed and so will the implementation of the 2050 Blue Pacific Strategy launched at the 51st Forum Meeting in Suva in July last year.

"We need a plan like the 2050 [Strategy] to allow us to keep pace.

"To continue to work together, that is the absolute basis of 2050," Puna said.

The strategy touted as integral to regional unity as tensions heat up between the US and China, as both major powers have announced a special envoy to the Pacific to scale up their influence in the region.

The US has formally recognised the 2050 strategy and Puna said it is his job to engage China.

"What I can tell you is at the operational level our future looks secure," he said.

"Yes, we are the subject of geopolitical interests from around the world, particularly when the Solomon Islands signed their security deal with China. But I can assure you that all is well now within the Forum family."

He said the 2050 strategy signed by the leaders is very much based on the Forum family moving forward as one.

An update will also be given on dialogue partner Japan's planned release of treated nuclear wastewater into the Pacific Ocean.

In addition, the official handover of the Forum Chair role from Fiji Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka to the Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown will also take place.

New Zealand's Prime Minister is not attending as he focuses on the response to the devastation left by Cyclone Gabrielle.

The retreat would have been Chris Hipkins' first chance to meet other Pacific leaders since replacing Jacinda Ardern.

Deputy Prime Minister Carmel Sepuloni will go in his place.

Healing a fractured Forum

With covid-19 wiping out opportunities to talanoa, this retreat gives the leaders a space to meet face-to-face and heal "the Pacific way", the head of the regional organisation, Secretary-General Henry Puna said.

It will centre around welcoming Kiribati back, Puna confirmed.

The Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) President, David Panuelo, said this 'special' meeting also centres on the implementation of the Suva Agreement to heal the political rift that divided the Forum.

And now that the forum is fully together as a family it, "will never be fractured ever again in the future," Panuelo said.

It is a view supported by Mark Brown as the incoming chair.

"We respect the decisions made independently by countries.

"But we know that as a region collectively, we can also uphold some very strong positions on a regional basis," Brown said.

He said that, with the resumption of face-to-face meetings, the expectation is that the Forum will not experience what it has in the past.

The Suva Agreement was signed in a meeting on June 17, 2022, hosted by then PIF chair, Fiji's former PM Frank Bainimarama, with the leaders of Palau, the FSM, Samoa and the Cook Islands attending in-person.

Cracks started to show in the Forum in February 2021.

Micronesia wanted their candidate in the top job as the next Secretary-General.

Polynesia had their chance, Melanesia had their turn and Micronesia believed it was rightfully their turn at the helm, on the basis of a 'gentlemen's agreement' that the role be rotated between the three sub-regions.

But that did not happen and Henry Puna, the former Prime Minister of Cook Islands, was selected as the Forum's 10th Secretary-General in February 2021, replacing Papua New Guinea's, Dame Meg Taylor.

The five Micronesian member countries then threatened to withdraw from the Forum.

In an effort to patch up the rift some of the forum leaders met and signed the Suva Agreement in May 2022.

Then, in July, on the eve of the annual Forum meeting in Fiji, Kiribati announced it was pulling the plug on being a forum member.

In the end it was the only Micronesian nation to go ahead with the threat to leave.

Fast forward to 2023, Fiji's new Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka visited Kiribati as the Forum chair.

Soon after, Kiribati announced it would be rejoining the Forum.

The Micronesian presidents held a summit in Pohnpei this month to operationalise the Suva Agreement.

At the 21st Micronesian Presidents' Summit they made some "big decisions" and will arrive at the special retreat armed with their non-negotiables for the endorsement of the full PIF membership.

It is expected all issues that have affected Forum unity will be settled when Pacific leaders meet in Nadi this week.

The ability to mend such a division says a lot about the Pacific's willingness to stay united, Tonga's Prime Minister Hu'akavameiliku Siaosi Sovaleni said.

"We went through huge challenges," he said. 

Cook Islands News approached a spokesperson for PM Brown, asking what is the key purpose of the meeting and how it would be beneficial in the lead-up to the PIF in Rarotonga later this year. The spokesperson said PM Brown was in Fiji and had answered these questions last week.