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Opinion

New sovereignties and old divisions shaping Pacific politics


Published : 30 Dec 2023 08:42 PM
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Reconciliation set the scene in 2023 in the Pacific. In January, newly elected Fijian Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka, also chair of the Pacific Islands Forum at the time, visited Kiribati, seeking to convince the government not to leave the Forum.

After Rabuka officially apologised on behalf of the Forum, Kiribati President Taneti Maamau confirmed that the country would remain. This marked a promising turn after the Pacific’s peak regional body faced turmoil when five Micronesian states moved to exit in early 2021. A press statement from the Kiribati government referred to it as ‘the restoration of unity in the Blue Pacific family’. Yet some cracks in the unity of the Blue Pacific remain, as the events of 2023 suggest.

Despite a conciliatory tone at the 2023 Pacific Islands Forum Leaders Meeting in the Cook Islands, there was evidence of ongoing divisions. Nauruan President David Adeang walked out when the appointment of the Secretary-General — expected to go to former Nauruan president Baron Waqa — was placed on the agenda for discussion. While other leaders insisted it was not a slight and reiterated their support for Waqa’s appointment, the Nauruan delegation did not return. Waqa was eventually confirmed as Secretary-General, but Nauru’s walkout highlighted enduring tensions in the Forum.

The walk out was underlined by less publicised incidents at the Forum. The Cook Islands, as hosts, presented an unusual gift to visiting leaders — seabed nodules from the surrounding ocean. The Cook Islands government has long been a key proponent of deep-sea mining in the region. Deep-sea mining is an extremely controversial issue, with no regional consensus on the horizon. In 2023, environmental issues — including climate change, the Pacific’s nuclear-free status and the discharge of Fukushima wastewater — dominated the regional agenda. The gift of seabed nodules served as a reminder that the Pacific does not always have a unified voice on ocean policy.

While Nauru’s departure garnered headlines, most Melanesian heads of government did not turn up. Various excuses were made for their absences. Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare was preparing for the Pacific Games, Vanuatu’s Prime Minister Charlot Salwai was dealing with the aftermath of Cyclone Lola — and a potential vote of no confidence — and Papua New Guinean Prime Minister James Marape did not provide a reason. Collectively, these absences suggest ongoing divisions in the Forum.

While much attention has focussed on the grievances of the Micronesian bloc since 2021, Melanesian states have also long quietly expressed discontent with the perceived Polynesian dominance of the regional body. It is notable that in the 2021 Secretary-General vote that prompted the Micronesian split, the three Melanesian countries reportedly voted for the Micronesian candidate.

In 2023, events within the Melanesian sub-region emphasised enduring differences of opinion. At the Melanesian Spearhead Group Leaders’ Summit in August, the membership bid from the United Liberation Movement of West Papua was rejected. The rejection was a seemingly definitive decision to a long-standing issue that has divided the body. The final communique acknowledged that leaders could not reach a consensus on the bid. The inability to reach a consensus reinforced that the Membership of the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) must be limited only to sovereign and independent states, with the exception of the special arrangement for the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front — a pro-independence grouping from Kanaky (New Caledonia).

Established in the 1980s with an explicitly decolonial stance, the MSG has faced something of an existential crisis over the issue of West Papua. The unresolved future political status of Bougainville highlights the delicate balancing act undertaken by the MSG in navigating its position on decolonisation.

The Blue Pacific concept, championed by former Pacific Islands Forum secretary-general Meg Taylor, serves as a unifying framework for Pacific nations. Central to the Blue Pacific narrative is the issue of climate change, seen as both an existential threat and an opportunity for collaboration. In 2023, a significant development in the region occurred on the sidelines of the Forum Leaders Meeting. The prime ministers of Tuvalu and Australia announced the Falepili Union, an agreement which formalises close ties between the two nations. The agreement provides migration pathways for Tuvalu citizens to Australia and establishes binding provisions for security cooperation between the two countries.

The Falepili Union has been the subject of extensive discussion and criticism, with many commentators framing it as an unprecedented arrangement concerning sovereignty. But sovereignty has always been a flexible concept in the Pacific, with forms of ‘free association’ navigating between territorial and independent statuses. The Falepili Union represents a new evolution in sovereignty arrangements, particularly in its explicit focus on climate change, but it builds upon existing pathways established within the region.

The agreement is shaping up to be a key issue in Tuvalu’s upcoming election and discussions are ongoing regarding its final structure and implementation. The Falepili Union and previous flexible sovereignty arrangements show potential for innovation even as the Pacific faces serious and complex challenges, originating from both within and outside the region.


Kerryn Baker is Fellow at the Department of Pacific Affairs, The Australian National University.

Source: East Asia Forum