Zoomed to fail? Cracks appear in Pacific Islands Forum as Covid pulls nations apart

By Ben Doherty

In the Pacific, it is all about the talanoa: the conversation and the consensus.

For the 50 years of the Pacific Islands Forum (beginning life as the South Pacific Forum), meetings have always happened in person, and it is the power of the leaders being together that has given the forum its rare ability to find common ground.

In 2014, as journalist Nic Maclellan recalls, the prime ministers of Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea took a quiet walk together under the trees on the island of Peleliu, in Palau. They returned with an agreement on a new forum secretary general.

However, that won’t happen this year. 2020’s forum, after numerous delays, will take place on Wednesday but virtually, with leaders – internet permitting – joining via Zoom.

Given everything the Pacific, and the world, have sacrificed this pandemic, a forum reduced to a virtual meeting is far from the greatest loss. But it is already having consequences, with threats from some countries to abandon the forum altogether because of a lack of consensus over who, now, will lead it.

The Pacific Islands Forum needs a new chief – Dame Meg Taylor is ready to return home to PNG after six years – and the debate over who will replace her as the forum’s secretary general – the region’s chief diplomat and bureaucrat – has become uncommonly fractious.

By convention (with occasional deviation), the leadership cycles through the region’s three major subgroupings: Polynesia, Melanesia, Micronesia.

This time it is Micronesia’s turn, and its candidate – the Marshall Islands ambassador to the UN, Gerald Zackios – might have expected his ascension to be a formality by now.

But without the opportunity for regular meetings and discussions between leaders to find a consensus candidate, he faces a formidable suite of challengers: from Polynesia, former Cook Islands prime minister Henry Puna and Tongan international development economist Amelia Kinahoi Siamomua; and from Melanesia, Fiji’s former foreign minister Ratu Inoke Kubuabola, and Jimmie Rodgers of Solomon Islands, formerly the director general of the Pacific Community.

National flags for the Pacific Islands Forum
Stewardship of the Pacific Islands Forum usually cycles through the region’s three major subgroupings: Polynesia, Melanesia, Micronesia. Photograph: Jason Oxenham/AP

Micronesian countries argue that if their “turn” at the secretary generalship is not honoured, they might abandon the forum altogether.

“If we cannot honour our commitments we need to think about other alternatives, which is we need to move out of this relationship,” new Palauan president Surangel Whipps Jr said last week.

“Those commitments are based on trust and it’s important as leaders in the Pacific to build on that trust. Once that trust is broken, maybe we need to take a different direction.”

Bluff or no, it represents a serious fracture. The significance of face-to-face meetings cannot be underestimated in the Pacific. It is, in large part, the essence of the “Pacific Way”.

“Unlike the UN, the Pacific is such a tight-knit community,” Jonathan Pryke, director of the Pacific Islands Program at the Lowy Institute told the Guardian. “Particularly the island leaders, they are accustomed to seeing each other regularly, used to these things taking time, as they talk through and think through these decisions.”

“The Pacific Islands Forum prides itself on consensus decision-making. Decisions can be contentious but they always do reach that consensus. How that will work over Zoom, with possible internet bandwidth and connectivity issues, we don’t know.”

Finding a new leader with broad support and authority across the region comes at a critical time for the Pacific, as its economies stagger under the imposition of Covid-19 travel shutdowns, and its islands deal with the existential challenge of a global climate emergency that is hitting them first, and hardest.

Forum leaders’ meetings typically provide a communique at their conclusion, which in recent years have focused on the threats posed by climate change, but there will not be one this year.

And the usual smorgasboard of issues up for debate – climate change, safeguarding the “Blue Pacific”, economic and human development, West Papua – has been winnowed down to just one: finding a new chief.