The Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) faces a crisis as five Micronesian Member States- Nauru, the Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Marshall Islands and Palau have decided to quit the organisation over the issue of appointment of the new Secretary General of the PIF. The Presidents of the five countries issued a joint communiqué on 9 February 2021expressing “great disappointment" with the appointment process. They said that they have agreed “to start to initiate the formal process of leaving the Forum”.
On 3 February 2021, the PIF Leaders Summit was held virtually after much delay. During the Summit, Prime Minister of the Cook Islands Henry Puna won a ballot by one vote to become the new Secretary General of the Forum against Gerald Zackios, the candidate put forward by the five Micronesian nations. However, Micronesian countries expressed discontentment with the appointment process, insisting that it was Micronesia’s turn for Forum’s top position. They argued that that the informal understanding to respect a “gentleman's agreement” to rotate the post of Secretary General among three sub-regions of Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia was not honoured.
Reacting to the Joint Statement of the Micronesia group, the current Chair of the PIF, Prime Minister of Tuvalu Kausea Natano, issued a statement noting that the decision of the Micronesian Presidents was unfortunate and that it would have an impact on ‘Pacific regionalism and collective action’. Any possibility of ‘resolution to this impasse’ will be good for ‘regional unity and solidarity’ especially in the face of existing pan-regional challenges of climate change, COVID-19 and pandemic induced economic slowdown.
The PIF was established in 1971 as the South Pacific Forum (SPF) and renamed as PIF in 1999. It provides the small and remotely located countries of the region an opportunity to be heard and to attract the attention of the international community. The members of the Forum are a heterogeneous group with diverse ethnicities, culture, languages, economies, and political systems.As the rising significance of the Indo-Pacific region has focused attention to the remotely located small island nations, the PIF has becomes even more important for articulating a united voice of the member countries on the international stage as a multilateral platform based on the ‘sense of common identity and purpose’. The impending exit of one third of the members would reduce the main regional body of the Pacific from 18 to 13 members, predominantly the South Pacific nations and regional heavyweights Australia and New Zealand.
This divide has also shown that there has been implicit tension between the North and the South within the group. There is a feeling that the group is dominated by the South especially bigger players including Australia, New Zealand and Fiji.There is discontentment among the Micronesian members about the role of Australia and New Zealand in the selection process of the new Secretary General. As the President of Palau Surangel Whipps said “COVID, for example, and Australian assistance to the Pacific, and clearly, when it comes to assistance, it’s focused on the South Pacific”. Micronesian nations feel that Canberra and Wellington want to preserve their influence in the South Pacific. Nauru's President Lionel Aingimeahas argued that Australia has supported Henry Puna saying "if (Australia) really wanted to let the small islands decide together they would have stayed out and not voted". 
The rupture within the Forum can also have larger geopolitical consequences in the long run. As the global focus shifts to the Indo-Pacific, the Pacific Island Countries (PICs) lying at the crossroads of strategically significant maritime trade routes, with large EEZs, abundance of natural resources and relatively lesser developed economies, are also attracting attention from regional and extra-regional powers. Until recently, the region was considered more of an area of United States’ influence managed under the trilateral military alliance set up by Australia-New Zealand-US (ANZUS) agreement of 1951. However, China’s recent interest in the region seems to have challenged the traditional predominance of Australia and New Zealand.
In the PICs, an aid narrative has mainly determined their relationships with the larger countries. The region is one of the most aid-dependent regions of the world. While Australia remains the largest aid and development partner, over the past few years, China has gradually emerged as one of the highest donors to the PIC’s, becoming the second largest after Australia challenging, thereby, Canberra’s traditional dominance in the region. With China bolstering its economic and diplomatic footprint, both New Zealand and Australia have been vocal about their concerns of China’s strategic ambitions in the region and its ‘chequebook diplomacy’.
Commenting on the decision of Micronesian nations to leave the Forum, Australia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Marise Payne in an interview said that Australia will “continue to work very closely with members of the Forum and its leadership” and ‘would continue to have a “close partnership” with each of the Micronesian nations’. Australia is enhancing its role in the region with its Pacific "step up" policy of 2017 that aims at augmenting security, economic, diplomatic and people to people cooperation with the region. On the other hand, New Zealand announced a fresh approach to the Pacific Islands region, with the “Pacific Reset” policy in February 2018, focusing on building deeper and more mature partnerships with PIC’s, as well as increasing its diplomatic presence. ‘Pacific Reset’ also includes closer cooperation with Australia, and other major partners in the Pacific.France, Australia and New Zealand already have close relations to coordinate their assistance in the Pacific Islands under the tripartite FRANZ Agreement of 1992. In recent years, Australia and France have shown renewed interest in their bilateral relationship in the face of growing Chinese presence in the region.
India’s approach towards the PICs has undergone a gradual positive shift in recent years; highlighting the government’s willingness for greater engagement with these small island countries. India participates in the Pacific Island Forum (PIF) as one of the key dialogue partners. The most important development in facilitating India’s interaction with the PICs in recent years has been the formation of action-oriented Forum for India and Pacific Islands Cooperation (FIPIC) in 2014. It has provided a platform to facilitate multilateral and multidimensional cooperation on focus areas such as climate change, connectivity, disaster management, informational technology, trade and investment, sustainable development, maritime security, human resource development and people to people contacts between India and these island countries. India’s approach towards the PICs focuses on a transparent, need-based approach and inclusive relationship with the region based on shared values and a shared future.
Of the five Micronesian countries breaking away from the group, Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia and the Marshall Islands are in a ‘Compact of Free Association’ with the United States, which implies that their foreign and defence policies are largely determined by their relationship with United States. Micronesia is particularly an area of United States’ influence. A major recent development has been the switching of the allegiance of Kiribati in 2019 from Taiwan to China. It is the second country to do so in the region after Solomon Islands. Kiribati is particularly important for Beijing as it houses China’s satellite tracking station which is China's only offshore satellite facility.The President of Kiribati Taneti Maamau visited Beijing in January 2020, and during the visit he expressed willingness to support more Chinese investments in Kiribati. China’s active presence in Kiribati can be a cause of apprehension to the United States. The United States has recently been taking the Oceania region as a whole much more seriously reflected by recent high level visits like the first visit of the Secretary of State to the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) in 2019 and the first visit by a Defense Secretary to Palau in 2020, which later offered to host a U.S. base.
Therefore, the geopolitical environment in the region has been heating up with traditional regional players’ concerns about China’s economic, diplomatic and strategic advances in the region. Tensions are also apparent between the North and the South island countries. At this stage, the disintegration of the only regional organisation which brought these countries together to discuss common challenges and shared interests, to work collaboratively on wide ranging issues such as coordinating response to COVID 19 and post-pandemic recovery, climate change, information technology, trade and investment, sustainable development, public health, maritime security, disaster management, people to people contacts, etc., will have implications for region’s prosperity and stability.
*Dr. Pragya Pandey, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal
Five Micronesian countries leave Pacific Islands Forum, 9 February 2021, https://www.rnz.co.nz/international/pacific-news/436039/five-micronesian-countries-leave-pacific-islands-forum
Forum Chair’s Statement-on the Micronesian President’s Feb 2021 Communique, https://www.forumsec.org/2021/02/09/forum-chairs-statement-on-the-micronesian-presidents-feb-2021-communique/
The members of the Forum include: Australia, Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, French Polynesia, Kiribati, Nauru, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Republic of Marshall Islands, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu.
 Pacific Islands Forum on brink of collapse over leadership dispute, 8 February 2021, https://amp.smh.com.au/politics/federal/pacific-islands-forum-on-brink-of-collapse-over-leadership-dispute-20210208-p570iw.html
With smaller population and economies, the Micronesian nations feel marginalised in some ways by their larger, more influential and economically bigger neighbours in the south. As Federated States of Micronesia President David Panuelo commented, “what we have seen is a south Pacific that looks down on the north Pacific” (see:https://www.abc.net.au/radio-australia/programs/pacificbeat/fsm-pres-covid-pif/13120114)
Pacific Islands Forum in crisis as one-third of member nations quit, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/feb/09/pacific-islands-forum-in-crisis-as-one-third-of-member-nations-quit
Cleo Paskal, How the Pacific Islands Forum Fell Apart, 10 February 2021,
 Pacific Islands Forum future on the line at critical meeting of Micronesian leaders, https://www.abc.net.au/radio-australia/programs/pacificbeat/pacific-islands-forum-divided-over-secretary-general-vote/13131426
Minister of Foreign Affairs’ Interview with Sabra Lane, ABC AM programme, 9 February 2021, https://www.foreignminister.gov.au/minister/marise-payne/transcript/interview-sabra-lane-abc-am-programme-0
Our relationship with the Pacific, new Zealand Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, https://www.mfat.govt.nz/en/countries-and-regions/pacific/
 Richard K. Pruett, “A United States-Kiribati Compact of Free Association Would Yield Mutual Dividend”, Asia Pacific Bulletin, No. 501, March 2020,https://www.eastwestcenter.org/publications/united-states-kiribati-compact-free-association-would-yield-mutual-dividends#:~:text=Kiribati%20is%20a%20Pacific%20Micronesian,Micronesia%2C%20and%20the%20Marshall%20Islands.&text=Each%20is%20now%20a%20sovereign,law%20equal%20to%20the%20Constitution.