Might Blinken’s visit halt the Pacific Islands Forum split?
11 Feb 2022| and

Unless some last-minute dramatic event occurs, the unravelling of the Pacific Islands Forum will begin its final stage sometime in the next week when the first of the five Micronesian members is expected to complete a year-long transition out of the PIF.

This drastic action was provoked by what the five deemed an unforgivable betrayal by the other PIF members. The Micronesians had relied on a ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ to deliver their candidate, Ambassador Gerald Zackios of Marshall Islands, the secretary-general’s post. They believe this was dishonoured by the majority of the PIF in favour of the Cook Islands’ former prime minister Henry Puna.

Consequently, in February 2021, the Micronesian presidents announced that their nations would cease their membership in the PIF. By July, all had deposited formal letters of denunciation to withdraw from the 2000 Agreement Establishing the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat.

The Federated States of Micronesia deposited its instrument on 17 February; the Republic of the Marshall Islands on 9 March; Palau on 16 March; Nauru on 7 April; and finally Kiribati on 23 July. The consequence is that each Micronesian state will complete its year of transiting out of the PIF during 2022.

The prospects for any eleventh-hour intervention to circumvent the cascading departures look very bleak as events have conspired repeatedly to frustrate year-long efforts to end the impasse between the Micronesian states and the rest of the PIF.

Covid-19, which may have been the original catalyst for the problem, continues to be an issue. In 2020, the pandemic prevented the normal face-to-face PIF leaders’ retreat where last minute details of the secretary-general’s job could have been worked out. A face-to-face meeting of leaders planned for January 2022 also failed due to the Omicron variant, and the virtual alternative scheduled for later this month is in doubt.

While not specifically a PIF meeting, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s brief stop in Fiji this weekend could provide an opportunity for some belated interest by the US in supporting the unity of the PIF to change the Micronesian leaders’ trajectory. Blinken and the current PIF chair, Fiji’s PM Frank Bainimarama, are scheduled to co-host a virtual meeting with Pacific island leaders.

At the time of writing, however, Bainimarama is recovering from heart by-pass surgery in Melbourne and it’s not clear that he will be able to serve as co-host even if PIF unity is put on the meeting’s agenda. He is not due to return to Suva until the end of February.

Conversations involving high-level US State Department officials and Marshall Islands leaders have reportedly emphasised US support for maintaining a unified forum. Similar conversations are likely to have occurred with leaders of the other two ‘freely associated states’—Palau and Micronesia, former trust countries that have retained a special relationship with the US.

Moreover, even at this late stage, there are reports that some leaders in the Marshall Islands who were involved in the country’s early forum membership in the late 1980s are reconsidering the withdrawal plan. But such reconsideration is fraught with local political machinations and family ties.

However, the intertwining of the importance of Palau and Micronesia to US security with the broader importance of PIF unity to stability in the Indo-Pacific region is severely impacted by the congressional politics of renewing the compact of free association now underway.

Critics bemoan the tunnel vision of bean counters in Washington that is ‘squandering’ the opportunity the compact negotiations offer for improving American relations both with the associated states and with the region.

Thus, as important as the timing of Blinken’s meeting in Fiji could be as a final throw of the dice to preserve PIF unity, it seems unlikely that even a single die will be rolled. Equally, even if a Micronesian state such as the Marshalls decided to withdraw its denunciation, this virtual bilateral would not be the occasion to arrest the Micronesian retreat from the PIF.

Yet a somewhat bizarre legal twist may still be in play.

As noted in The Strategist last year, the Micronesian states’ formal departure from the PIF has been complicated by the technicalities of the dual treaties involved in their PIF membership.

Until August 2021, their membership was through the 2000 PIF Secretariat agreement. However, on 18 August 2021, the successor 2005 Agreement Establishing the Pacific Islands Forum entered into force. Article XIII of the 2005 treaty specified that immediately on its entry into force it would ‘terminate and replace’ the 2000 agreement.

If the Micronesian states had wanted to end their membership of the PIF as quickly as possible, they could have withdrawn their ratification of the 2005 treaty before it came into force. That would have ended their membership when the 2000 treaty lapsed with the activation of the 2005 treaty.

Withdrawing a ratification is not a simple unilateral act as it can have consequences for the remaining parties that wish a treaty to continue. Typically, some concurrence from the continuing states is expected. That might not have been an issue for the Micronesians because the other PIF states have no real desire to force them to remain against their will or to go through a second act of denunciation.

A problem with this scenario was that the Micronesian states couldn’t be certain that the 2005 treaty would come into effect during the year of their transiting out of the 2000 treaty. Hence the need for denunciations of the 2000 treaty. Fiji was the last state needed to complete the treaty and it had been dragging the chain for 16 years.

Nonetheless, it would have been prudent for the Micronesians to withdraw their ratification of the 2005 treaty while there was still an opening to do that. Apart from one Palauan news report, however, there is little to indicate that this possibility was even considered, and the fact that the Micronesians don’t believe they have already exited the PIF is solid evidence that this step wasn’t taken.

Thus, as things stand now, the Micronesians’ denunciations of a treaty that lapsed last August will be applied politically to allow them to exit a different treaty that hasn’t yet been denounced.

Nevertheless, the dual treaties twist could provide a legal way out if there’s a political will to exploit it. Alas, the corner into which everyone was painted appears to have no exit path and so the dominoes are likely to begin falling on schedule from next week.