Think Tank (2/2021)
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Pacific Regionalism at a Crossroads: How did We Get Here and Where to Next?
18 Mar 2021

On 18 March 2021, the Centre for Multilateralism Studies (CMS) organised a webinar on the dynamics of regionalism in the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF). Dr Tess Newton Cain, Project Leader of Griffith Asia Institute’s Pacific Hub, discussed the longstanding tensions undergirding the decision by the PIF’s Micronesian members — Palau, Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati and Nauru — to announce their departure from the organisation. In their view, the PIF disproportionately favours members from the South Pacific and does not seem to bring tangible benefits to the Northern Pacific members, for instance, in the hosting of regional institutions and the reaping of associated benefits like jobs creation.

The severity of this most recent rift notwithstanding, Dr Cain noted that Pacific regionalism was not all lost as not all the Micronesian five have officially begun their exit process. Quiet diplomacy has been afoot to find interlocutors and encourage negotiations as there is significant interest in retaining a 17-member-strong PIF. However, the inability to hold in-person meetings owing to COVID-19 has made negotiations doubly hard. Acknowledging that the pandemic has ushered in more inward-looking sentiments, she added that more could be done to strengthen regionalism among member states. For instance, more high-level points of contact between foreign ministries would be beneficial as junior government officials have little clout in spotlighting regional issues at the national level.

In response to questions raised by Dr Alan Chong, Associate Professor and Head of CMS, Dr Cain elaborated on the interests of external powers in the PIF’s fate and their potential roles in resolving tensions. For the European Union, the PIF is an important partner in climate change diplomacy. Being well within the US orbit and not at risk of coming under Chinese influence, for Washington, the Micronesian states could in fact become an important base for its hard security strategy, a “Fortress Micronesia”. Nonetheless, their departure from PIF would leave the United States with fewer allies in PIF discussions. Although there is interest in seeing the PIF weather this crisis, Dr Cain felt that the other Pacific Islander countries are better positioned to initiate and lead talks; any external support should only be in the form of facilitating those diplomatic efforts.

Catch it here on the RSISVideoCast YouTube channel:

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