Pacific Island leaders have agreed a deal that should prevent the region's main body from falling apart because of tensions between members. Australia - a key regional power - has said the Pacific Islands Forum is the “architecture” allowing the region to manage “both internal and external issues.”
The Pacific Islands Forum includes 18 members. It spans the three cultural and geographic groups of Micronesia, Melanesia and Polynesia, as well as Australia and New Zealand. Some states have diplomatic ties with Taiwan while others recognize China.
Founded in 1971, the forum was at risk of splintering over a leadership row that began last year, as both China and Australia intensify their diplomatic presence in the Pacific. Micronesia was angry that its candidate for the organization’s secretary-generalship, Marshall Islands Ambassador to Washington and former Foreign Minister Gerald Zackios, was overlooked in favor of former Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna.
Those antagonisms appear to have been resolved following a meeting this week of officials from Fiji, Samoa, Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Palau and Marshall Islands. They agreed to reforms that need to be ratified by all members of the forum at its next meeting.
On a recent trip to the region, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi failed to reach a sweeping trade and security pact with 10 Island nations because of concerns the process had been rushed. Some leaders called for the proposed accord to be debated by the Pacific Islands Forum.
Speaking to Radio New Zealand, Anna Powles, a senior lecturer in security studies at Massey University, said the diplomatic expertise of Pacific leaders should not be underestimated.
“Minister Wang’s visit really demonstrated both the depth of relationships that China has bilaterally, but also the overreach and over-confidence with respect to its efforts to engage at the multilateral level," said Powles. "This demonstrated the astuteness of Pacific statecraft, the way in which Pacific states are leveraging geopolitical interests in the region.”
Wang did sign individual accords with several island nations in the region during his recent trip, including Kiribati and Samoa.
Earlier this year, Beijing signed a security agreement with Solomon Islands, northeast of Australia, to boost the response to natural disasters and to enhance internal law enforcement in a Melanesian archipelago with a history of violent unrest.
Australia and its allies are worried the accord will eventually allow China to establish a strategic military foothold in the region.
In response, the recently elected center-left government in Canberra immediately intensified its diplomatic efforts in the region after the May 21 vote, promising more action on climate change, security and aid.
Analysts believe that the feeling within the Pacific Islands Forum's 18 members is that the soothing of internal tensions will make the grouping stronger and more unified to carefully consider China's ambitions and Australia's promises of more action on climate change.