A sea of uncertainty: Pacific Islands Forum diplomacy

A sea of uncertainty: Pacific Islands Forum diplomacy

Schisms within the PIF are inhibiting coordinated responses to Pacific issues.


The Secretary-General of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) recently visited Australia to discuss the regional organisation’s future relationship and security arrangements with Canberra.


– PIF has become increasingly active in global forums since its creation in 1971, particularly in dealing with climate change-related issues and the legacy of nuclear testing in the region.
– Fiji’s suspension from the organisation in 2008 and its suspicion of Australia and New Zealand has led to some tension within the PIF and with rival organisation, the Pacific Islands Development Forum.
– Overcrowding of regional organisations, divergence on issues like human rights and Australia’s lack of action on climate change may cause significant fractures within the PIF.

The Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) Secretary-General Dame Meg Taylor recently met with Australian government ministers to discuss Australia’s new Foreign Policy White Paper, regional security agreements and resilience towards climate change and natural disasters. PIF, as the primary intergovernmental body within the Pacific, has often been overlooked in the global sphere. However, with recent events moving the Pacific into the spotlight, it is becoming a growing presence in international forums and global discussion on the region.


PIF’s forerunner, the South Pacific Forum, was established in 1971 with a focus on issues like trade and tourism. In 1999, endeavouring to be a more regionally inclusive organisation, it changed its name to the Pacific Islands Forum and added several members including Australia and New Zealand. In recent years it has enjoyed a reinvigoration of sorts; a major organisational review and an ambitious Framework for Pacific Regionalism in 2013 has shifted the PIF away from a technocratic, Anglophone grouping into an active organisation with numerous private sectors, government and civil society observers and Francophone members such as French Polynesia and New Caledonia.

PIF’s role has also expanded significantly by focusing on the region’s strengths. For instance, the Pacific enjoys some of the world’s largest tuna stocks, and so the PIF has become a champion for protecting tuna fishing under the Nauru Agreement. The PIF has become more vocal in international forums encouraging greater efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as climate change begins to affect the region. The forum has also become an advocate for nuclear disarmament due to the legacy of nuclear testing in the Pacific during the 1950s and 1960s.

These approaches have ostracised larger states within the organisation, namely Australia – the PIF’s largest member by far. Australia’s continued promotion of coal mining and fossil fuel-based energy, and its boycott of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, has meant other PIF members are increasingly frustrated at Australia’s perceived dominance over the organisation and its objectives.


/ Pacific Islands Forum

Fiji’s role in the PIF has been in a precarious situation since the mid-2000s and continues to cause significant tension between members. In 2006, Commodore Frank Bainimarama led a coup against Prime Minister Laisena Qarase in the wake of government proposals to show leniency towards the perpetrators of a racially-motivated coup in 2000. Australia and New Zealand strongly condemned Bainimarama’s coup, and the PIF suspended Fiji’s membership in 2008 citing a deteriorating political, legal and human rights situation. Fiji remained suspended until 2014, when Bainimarama was elected President in the first democratic elections since the coup.

Despite Fiji’s readmission, Bainimarama has remained critical of the ‘undue influence’ of Australia and New Zealand. He has boycotted recent forum summits and even established an alternative organisation, the Pacific Islands Development Forum (PIDF), established in 2013. PIDF presents itself as a Pacific-oriented group working to promote green development and stronger climate change action. Australia and New Zealand are notably absent; Bainimarama has expressed the desire for an organisation that has Pacific interests at heart, and claimed that Australia and New Zealand are not Pacific nations but rather development partners. He has even named Australia as a threat to the region due to its continued support of coal and apparent lack of action on climate change.

Regardless of Bainimarama’s rhetoric and PIDF’s exclusion of Australia and New Zealand, the organisation remains somewhat obscure. It failed to hold a leader’s summit in 2017 and has not attracted significant support from other key Pacific nations – Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister dismissed the PIDF at the time as unnecessary.


 Pacific Islands Leaders, Ministers and Dame Meg Taylor, Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum, with Foreign Minister Bishop following the inaugural Pacific Islands Forum Foreign Ministers Meeting in Sydney, on 10 July 2015.

Photo: Ministry of Foreign Affairs Australia/Flickr

While PIF and its strong sense of regionalism have been largely successful, the issue of Fiji’s self-imposed ostracism may negatively influence the organisation’s future trajectory. Fiji’s ongoing hostility towards Australia and New Zealand creates a substantial risk that the organisation will suffer from further internal division. This will extend to other contentious issues such as the recognition of West Papua, which has divided members and has shaped the PIF’s ability to engage with some observers, namely Indonesia, on issues of mutual concern.

Such differences of opinion will become more pronounced as politically contentious issues like human rights become more common in PIF’s discussions, which could detract from its ability to function successfully. However, in terms of issues like climate change – which has already prompted some citizens of Kiribati and Tuvalu to claim climate change refugee status– PIF enjoys a relatively strong unity and growing global advocacy, despite Australia’s position on fossil fuels and difficulties in balancing its economic objectives, environmental obligations and diplomatic interests in the Pacific.

The Pacific regional architecture is beginning to become progressively more cluttered. The Pacific hosts not only PIF and the Fiji-led PIDF but also the Pacific Community, and smaller organisations such as the Melanesian Spearhead Group and Polynesian Leaders Group. These groups are constantly looking for new members and international partners – notably France, which is actively bolstering its presence in the Pacific in response to strategic shifts such as China’s rising diplomatic influence and New Caledonia’s increasing economic importance in mining and Pacific fishing access.

The increasing overlap of these regional organisations and their overarching goals means that the PIF may lose some influence, especially if PIDF becomes more active and other regional organisations grow in strength and influence. However, PIF’s continued support from Australia, New Zealand and other regional groupings means that its role as the primary voice for the Pacific appears safe for now.

The PIF’s future appears to be relatively positive, as organisational reforms will make it more active in the international sphere. But Australia’s role and its image problem within the organisation will attract significant attention. Canberra has been seen in recent years as failing to pull its weight in the region with a notable lack of action on climate change and aggressive, dominant engagement with issues like the Timor Sea border dispute and the offshore processing of asylum seekers. This risks jeopardising Canberra’s renewed regional engagement as part of the Foreign Policy White Paper ‘step change’, which expresses a desire to further integrate Pacific economies with Australia and New Zealand economies through labour mobility and security sharing arrangements.

While Secretary-General Taylor’s discussions with Australian authorities will help the PIF to clarify exactly how Australia fits into the organisation’s future, Australia’s continuing cross-purpose interests on key PIF issues risks undermining Australia’s emphasis on security and regional economic integration, and its place within the Forum.