Micronesian Presidents say they see no benefit in continuing as part of the Pacific Islands Forum

By Bill Jaynes

The Kaselehlie Press

February 14, 2021

FSM—On February 3, 2021, leaders of Pacific Islands Forum nations selected former Cook Islands Prime Minister Nick Puna to be the new Secretary General of the regional organization, succeeding Dame Meg Taylor of Papua New Guinea. Last year, saying that it is Micronesia’s turn to lead the Forum, Micronesian leaders nominated RMI Ambassador to the US Gerald Zackios for the position of Secretary General.

On February 8, the Presidents of the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of Palau, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Republic of Nauru, and the Republic of Kiribati virtually convened the Micronesian Presidents’ Summit (MPS) to discuss the next course of action.  The result of that meeting was a communique signed by all five Presidents announcing their intention to withdraw from the Pacific Islands Forum.

“President Panuelo and the other Presidents of the MPS expressed great disappointment with the appointment process for the position of Secretary General within the Pacific Islands Forum. President Panuelo expressed frustration at how several Pacific Leaders suggested the Gentlemen’s Agreement (to rotate leadership amongst the regions) doesn’t exist or that they’ve never heard of it,” the FSM’s press release on the decision said.

“President Panuelo and the other Presidents of the MPS expressed unity and solidarity within the Micronesian subregion, and reaffirmed that the subregion’s mutual position is that, per the October 2nd, 2020 Mekreos Communique of the MPS, as the Gentlemen’s Agreement was not honored, Micronesian countries see no benefit to remaining in the Pacific Island Forum,” the FSM press release said.

Some analysts have said that the fact that South Pacific members of the Forum seem to have been surprised by the Micronesian leaders’ resolve to withdraw from the organization only serves to illustrate the sort of marginalization that leaders of North Pacific countries have long expressed.

“The Micronesian Presidents jointly agreed that all five nations will initiate the formal process of withdrawing from the Pacific Islands Forum, as set out in Article XIl of the Agreement Establishing the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat. Each nation will undertake this process with respect to its own internal legal and procedural requirements and final decision rests with respective governments,” the Micronesia Presidents’ February 2021 Communique said.

There has been much speculation on what FSM’s “legal and procedural requirements” are.  The nation’s chief legal officer, FSM Secretary for the Department of Justice Joses Gallen said that his office had not yet been formally requested to issue a legal opinion on FSM’s requirements for leaving the Forum. He said that his initial legal advice to the President is that Congress doesn’t need to approve FSM withdrawal from PIF. He said that Congress can only ratify treaties such as the treaty that established the PIF and that the process for withdrawal is defined in the Treaty that Congress ratified. He opined that the act of withdrawal by the President is well within his authority to conduct foreign affairs.

At press time, President Panuelo had not yet signed a letter intended for FSM Congress Speaker Wesley Simina outlining his intentions and next steps. According to the FSM Public Information Officer, that has been in draft form for several days but is not yet ready for release to the Speaker and therefore not yet to the public. We are told that letter would have gone a long way toward explaining the processes but could not yet be released.

The agreement that ratified FSM’s involvement in the Pacific Island Forum requires a year before it will be official on paper. However, that does not mean that Micronesian countries must wait that long before carrying out their intentions of withdrawing. In practice it can be done much sooner than that.

President Panuelo has told several regional news entities that the FSM’s intention and resolve is clear. It intends to withdraw from the Pacific Island Forum. He has said that FSM’s presence in the international arena has already been well established and the decision to leave the Forum should not affect FSM’s influence on major issues of the region.

Several regional news organizations and others have opined that the decision of the Micronesian region to leave the Forum would somehow give China a greater foothold in the Pacific region.  During an interview on Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Pacific Beat program last week, FSM President David Panuelo said that on the contrary, China urged the FSM to reconsider its position on leaving the Forum.