Pacific leaders reach crucial deal to restore political unity, as China’s interest in region accelerates | Pacific Islands Forum

Pacific leaders have reached a crucial deal to prevent the region’s diplomatic key painful body from breaking up, ending an impasse that has threatened unity in the region for more than a year.

The deal, which was sealed after talks among key Pacific leaders in Fiji, restores unity for the Pacific Islands Forum at a crucial time, as China’s interest in the region has undergone an “uptick in tempo”, placing the region at the heart of a geopolitical tussle.

The agreement, which will see Micronesian countries remain in the forum, rather than exit it as scheduled at the end of June, lifted the “big dark, dark cloud that has been hanging over the Pacific”, said David Panuelo, president of the Federated States of Micronesia.

The restoration of unity to PIF comes as the Pacific has been a site of intense geopolitical attention, after visits to Fiji, Samoa and Tonga by Australia’s new foreign minister Penny Wong in her first two weeks in the job and a marathon visit to the region by China’s foreign minister Wang Yi.

On his visit, Wang signed a swag of deals with Pacific nations but failed to get Pacific countries to sign on to a sweeping regional economic and security agreement.

Pacific leaders rejected the deal, with Samoa’s prime minister Fiame Naomi Mata’afa saying that it should have been raised at PIF, not at a sub-meeting. It is expected that China might attempt to raise a revised version of the deal at the PIF meeting next month.

However, it faces stiff opposition at PIF, including from the Micronesian bloc, home to three of the four Pacific countries that recognise Taiwan diplomatically and do not have relations with China.

The Pacific Islands Forum, currently chaired by Fijian prime minister Frank Bainimarama, has been fractured since February 2021 over the selection of the head of its secretariat body.

Five Micronesian countries, the Federated States of Micronesia, Palau, the Marshall Islands, Kiribati and Nauru signaled their intention to leave PIF at the end of June, after the Micronesian candidate for the job of secretary-general of the PIF was defeated in a controversial and fraught vote by Henry Puna, from the Cook Islands, a Polynesian country.

The Micronesian bloc argued there was a “gentleman’s agreement” in place that meant the top job should be shared between Polynesian, Melanesian and Micronesian candidates and that Micronesia had been passed over.

The Australian government flew Panuelo and Surangel Whipps Jr, the president of Palau, to Suva earlier this week to attend a high level a meeting with Bainimarama and other key regional political figures. An envoy for the Marshall Islands was also present.

The agreement reached by the group sees Micronesian leaders compromise on their demand that Puna immediate step down from the role of secretary-general. Instead he will serve out his term, which finishes in 2024, at which point he will be replaced by a Micronesian candidate.

The leaders also agreed to formalise the unspoken agreement and rotate the leadership of the PIF through Melanesia, Polynesia and Micronesia, to avoid a fracture over the issue from happening again, and to provide greater representation for Micronesia, including the creation of a new PIF office in a Micronesian country and moving the position of Pacific Ocean Commissioner to Micronesia.

The deal still has to be formally endorsed by all Pacific leaders when they meet for the Pacific Islands Forum leaders’ meeting, which has been postponed several times and is now slated to be held in mid-July. It will be the first time the leaders have all met in person since 2019, due to Covid.

Panuelo said it was crucial that the deal be signed quickly, for the sake of unity in the Pacific.

“In these times I think this is very important to tackle climate change mainly, the health of our respective nations and the Blue Pacific continent and, of course, the geopolitics within the region,” President Panuelo said.

Surangel Whipps Jr, the president of Palau said the success of the meeting in Fiji demonstrated the importance of face-to-face diplomacy, and that Micronesian leaders felt they had been heard by the rest of the Pacific.

“That’s always been Micronesia’s concern is that it’s not as inclusive as it needs to be. So this really demonstrates that the Pacific has heard what Micronesia has had to say, and is willing to work together to make it stronger,” he said.

Bainimarama issued a statement after the meeting to say it had “reaffirmed the value and importance of our talanoa in our Pacific Way, and represented an important first step towards re-uniting our Pacific family.”

“I am very pleased with the progress that has been made and the recognition shared among my fellow leaders, that our Family Forum is strong together.”