‘Our future looks secure’, says Puna on Pacific Islands Forum unity

Republic of Marshall Islands President David Kabua
Republic of Marshall Islands President David Kabua (left) is welcomed to Fiji ahead of the PIF Special Leaders Retreat on Friday. Image: PIF/RNZ Pacific

By Lydia Lewis, RNZ Pacific journalist

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 Mark Brown, who is prime minister of Cook islands, 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,” 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.

Tensions heating up
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.

Premier of Niue, Dalton Tagelagi arrived in Fiji ahead of the PIF Special Leaders Retreat in February 2023.
Premier of Niue Dalton Tagelagi . . . arriving in Fiji ahead of the PIF Special Leaders Retreat this week. Image: PIF/RNZ Pacific

The US has formally recognised the 2050 strategy and Puna said it was 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 was 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 Cook Islands Prime Minister Brown will take place.

New Zealand Prime Minister Chris Hipkins is not attending as he is focused on the response to the devastation left by Cyclone Gabrielle.

The retreat would have been Hipkins’ first chance to meet other Pacific leaders since succeeding 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, Puna said.

It will centre around welcoming back Kiribati, Puna confirmed.

The Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) President, David Panuelo, said this “special” meeting would also centre 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 Prime Minister 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.

Face-to-face meetings
He said that, with the resumption of face-to-face meetings, the expectation was that the Forum would not experience what it had in the past.

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

Sitiveni Rabuka, left, and James Marape, right, meet in Nadi.
Fiji Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka (left) and PNG’s James Marape meet in Nadi . . . mending Forum divisions. Image: Fiji govt/RNZ Pacific

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 subregions.

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.

Pulling the plug
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 that it would be rejoining the Forum.

The Micronesian presidents held a summit in Pohnpei this month to put the Suva Agreement into effect.

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, said Tonga’s Prime Minister Hu’akavameiliku Siaosi Sovaleni.

“We went through huge challenges,” he said.

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.

Pacific Leaders have started arriving in Nadi Fiji for the Pacific Islands Forum Special Leaders Retreat to be held on February 24th.
Pacific Leaders have started arriving in Nadi, Fiji, for the Pacific Islands Forum Special Leaders Retreat to be held on Friday. Image: PIF/RNZ Pacific
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