The 51st Pacific Islands Forum Held in Fiji: How Does it Influence the Geostrategic Architecture of the Pacific?

The 51st Pacific Islands Forum Held in Fiji: How Does it Influence the Geostrategic Architecture of the Pacific?


The 51st Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) was held in Suva, Fiji from 11 to 14 of July 2022, for the first time in the last three years. The Forum reunited Heads of State, Government, and Territories of Australia, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Niue, the Republic of Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, and Vanuatu. French Polynesia was represented at Vice-president Level, and Tuvalu was represented at Ministerial Level. The Cook Islands was represented by its Special Envoy and Nauru by its Presidential Envoy. According to the Forum Communiqué, the 17 participating countries celebrated the Pacific regionalism, reflected upon the strategic context and regional unity and solidarity and reviewed the Regional Architecture. Among the items discussed figured climate action, "addressing the threats of climate change-related sea-level rise on maritime zones, statehood and our people", "inviting non-Party Forum Members to acceded to the South Pacific Nuclear Free zone Treaty", "urging the United States to ratify the [South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone] Treaty Protocols" and "increasing economic returns from fisheries".

Established in 1971 as the South Pacific Forum, the regional organisation took on its current name in 2001, in order to more effectively represent the geographical composition of the member states, also in front of the entrance of the Federated States of Micronesia. Internationally, the PIF is the main regional body in the Pacific.

In both demographic and economic terms, Australia is the key country of the Forum, with a population equivalent to more than half of the total of all the other members and with a GDP which, added to that of New Zealand, constitutes over 98% of the total.In fact, Australia and New Zealand contribute with almost 75% to the organization's finances. In this regard, the two countries could be interpreted as of vital importance for the other member states, which traditionally rely on the economic aid they provide and see the two countries as the main outlet market for their goods.

Besides responding to "the need for increased cooperation in matters relating to trade and economic development in the Pacific region" [according to the PIF founding treaty], the PIF also plays a stabilizing role in terms of security in the area: in response to the coup d'état in Fiji in 2000 and to the ethnic tensions recorded in the Solomon Islands in 2000, the Forum drafted the Biketawa Declaration, designed to allow PIF peacekeeping operations in the event of a crisis. Peacekeeping interventions thus took place in the Solomon Islands, Nauru and Tonga.

China, the European Union, Russia and the United States – inter alia – showed considerable interest in the area, having become dialogue partners and expressing their desire for a possible strengthening of their partnership with the PIF.

The reunion of the Pacific island nations has been clearly marked by the withdrawal of Kiribati (mentioned seven times in the Communiqué) from the PIF. One could argue that Kiribati's decision comes at a pivotal time for the Pacific region, which faces intense geostrategic interest from China and the United States, as well as from ASEAN and Australia.

Over a year ago, several Micronesian countries, including Kiribati, threatened to leave the PIF. In February 2021, Micronesian leaders announced their intention to withdraw after their candidate for the Forum's general secretary was rejected. The talks led to the signing of the Suva Agreement, which included the formalization of the gentleman's agreement, i.e. the commitment to a Micronesian candidate as the next general secretary of the Forum, the creation of a new PIF office in a Micronesian country and the relocation of the headquarters of the Pacific Ocean Commissioner in Micronesia.

The Fiji President, Frank Bainimarama, whose country hosted the forum this year, played a significant role in solving the differences among the Member States and reaching the Suva Agreement, an agreement with most Micronesian states to keep Puna in office until 2024, which in fact contributed to maintain the unity of the organisation. Kiribati was not part of that Suva Agreement, and its President Taneti Maamau, wrote to President Puna stating that his country will not support the agreement signed in Suva and that its withdrawal from the Pacific Islands Forum will continue, according to media in the Pacific: "For Kiribati, this is a matter of principle and touches on the need for fairness, equality and inclusiveness", stressed the president of Kiribati.

With the departure of Kiribati, which in 2019 re-established diplomatic ties with Beijing after breaking its ties with Taiwan, the PIF could be considered weakened at a time when the US-China frictions in the region seem to intensify, especially after China signed a security agreement with the Solomon Islands. After the signing of agreement, announced in April and not made public, Beijing has tried to sign a pact with 10 Pacific nations with which it maintains relations, but, at the time being, the discussions on such an agreement are still going on.

With regard to the China-Solomon Islands agreement, which was referred to by the Solomon Islands President, Manasseh Sogavare, as a "treaty", the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin commented that Beijing was committed to helping the Solomon Islands “strengthen its capacity to maintain its own security”, as the bilateral cooperation include “social order, protecting people’s lives and property, humanitarian assistance and natural disaster response”. The Chinese spokesman did not mention details relating to military cooperation. Solomon Islands officials emphasized that the agreement with China “had solely domestic applications”, stressing that “there would be no military base, no long-term presence, and no power projection capability” as a result of the agreement.

The Micronesian State Members of PIF seem not to share a similar position with Kiribati and Solomon Islands on Beijing, as four PIF member states have diplomatic relations with Taiwan (Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Tuvalu).

On the other hand, the US Administration, through the Vice-president Kamala Harris, announced in a video speech at the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) the opening of two new Embassies, one in Tonga and the other in Kiribati, and the appointment of the US first ever envoy for the Pacific. This approach could be considered a major push for the United States in the Pacific region to counter China's growing influence. According to the US Vice-President, the United States will thus relaunch its Peace Corps program in the Pacific.

Washington has long had an agreement with the Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Palau, which allows it to channel aid, about $200 million a year, through the Departments of State and the Interior. The Department of Defense, on the other hand, conducts missile tests on Kwajalein Atoll, in the Marshall Islands.

Similarly, on June 2022, the United States along with Australia, Japan, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, launched the Partners in the Blue Pacific (PBP), an initiative aiming at continuing "to support prosperity, resilience and security in the Pacific (...) through closer cooperation". It is too early to comment on the Pacific island-states to the current initiative.

The US diplomatic demarchés could be interpreted as a response to China strengthening its economic and political ties with Pacific island-nations.

Certainly, Asia-Pacific is currently witnessing a new phase – and place – in the global architecture. The US-China strife for influence has currently extended to the whole Asia-Pacific region, currently including East-Asia, South and Southeast Asia, Australia (member of Quad and Aukus) as well as the Pacific.

In the light of the recent developments, one may argue the meeting of the US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, with the Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs, Wang Yi, on the sideline of the G20 Summit of the Ministers of Foreign Affairs seems not to encourage a thaw between the two countries. Moreover, the recently announced visit of the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, to Taiwan in August 2022 may further complicate the already fragile US-China relations. According to the spokesperson of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the visit would “severely undermine China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, gravely impact the foundation of China-U.S. relations and send a seriously wrong signal to Taiwan independence forces. (…) If the U.S. were to insist on going down the wrong path, China will take resolute and strong measures to safeguard its sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Indeed, provided ASEAN’s Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, a more active role on behalf of the regional association – with Indonesia as its driving force – is expected in the following period. Benefiting of a time-tested, 55-year experience in consolidating the Southeast Asian regionalism, with ASEAN Centrality in mind, the regional association might well serve the purpose of helping to accommodate the current effervescence in the Pacific region and consolidate the Pacific regionalism.

While, since the Second World War, the Pacific Ocean and its island nations have largely enjoyed a benign status in the world geopolitical architecture, the world powers’ growing presence in the region has significantly altered the geopolitical landscape. Host of strategically important access waterways, a major contributor to the world’s economy through its extensive fishing grounds and highly relevant through its geostrategic location, the Pacific Ocean and its island nations’ seem to regain their highly significant role in the international arena.



The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the official policy, position or view of IRSEA.