This November, it is anticipated that Forum Leaders will elect a new Secretary General to replace the outgoing Meg Taylor. For anybody who is interested, Nic McLellan has provided a useful summary of each candidate’s resume. In response to the question his article poses, ‘Who will lead the Pacific Islands Forum?’, our response should be, ‘Who cares?!’.
Before we get into that though, let’s consider a couple of reasons why we might need to care. Firstly, whether naively or otherwise, the “Micronesia’s Turn” campaign covers over the hotly contested geopolitics in and around the region that underpin the decision over who the next SG will be. Indeed, to convince all members that it is Micronesia’s turn will require significant leverage and resources, which the Marshall Islands and its fellow Micronesians do not really have. So where will they get it from? The United States and Taiwan most likely, and probably also from Japan and Australia. “Micronesia’s Turn” therefore could draw the Blue Pacific more deeply into the Indo-Pacific.
Another reason why we might want to care is deep sea mining (DSM). Cook Islands has been one of the most ardent defenders of DSM in recent years. A regional agreement on DSM has been drafted through the Pacific Community (SPC), and it was rumoured that the Cook Islands would table it at the Forum Officials Committee meeting in 2019. However, the plan was apparently put on hold in order to wait for the conclusion of international regulations at the International Seabed Authority. A Henry Puna SG may provide a clearer pathway for DSM to take place in the Pacific – if not through ensuring sign off on a regional agreement, at the least perhaps by blocking any proposed moratorium that would prevent individual states from undertaking DSM.
In any case, the question of who will be the next SG of the Forum really should be of no concern to us. The most obvious reason why is that the Forum has proven time and again to be a dead-end when it comes to transformative politics. Indeed, we’d do well to remind ourselves that the most transformative thing to happen regionally in the past 30 years has been the establishment of the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA), which required a group of states breaking away from the Forum Fisheries Agency to establish a new political and economic collective.
More specifically regarding the question of who will be the next SG, we should understand the position of the SG as a properly symbolic one – not in the sense that it is simply meaningless but rather in the sense that the position of the SG holds together or embodies the very idea of Pacific regionalism as we know it. In other words the position of the SG has a performative function. For example we see how the media and academics place significant emphasis on the words spoken by the SG during public events, meetings and so on. More than simply words on a page, for them such utterances provide the very real substance of Pacific regionalism itself. From a different perspective, we also witness how the position of the SG holds the place of the Forum collective in between the annual Forum meeting. Indeed, in between Forums the collective itself barely exists, giving way to bilateralism or engagement in alternative groupings like PSIDS or at the sub-regional level. For example, following agreement by Forum Leaders on the Kainaki Lua Declaration in August 2019 in Tuvalu, the document was all but forgotten a few months later at the COP meeting in Spain as member countries engaged in other groupings and pursued national financing priorities.
Beneath the surface of speeches and policy pronouncements however are concrete social relations that the dominant form of Pacific regionalism perpetuates. Most obvious of course are relations of dependency and integration of Pacific economies and security with Australia and the United States. Less discussed are the social relations across the region described by Epeli Hau’ofa as a ‘New South Pacific Society’, characterised by transnational class divisions where an elite class have privileged access to and control of resources moving within the region and to and from the region. More sharply, Francis Ona highlighted this new Pacific society when he described the state of Papua New Guinea as “an instrument for the few rich to accumulate wealth…[and] to suppress the suffering masses. The Parliament House in Port Moresby is nothing more than a central market place where the indigenous capitalists exchange large sums of money and make bargains for large foreign loans and investments for personal benefits in the name of national development”.
These concrete relations of power and class are at the heart of current Forum-led Pacific regionalism, and are precisely why a new SG changes nothing. Indeed, as Hau’ofa claims, the ruling classes of the region benefit so much from the existing arrangements that “despite rhetoric to the contrary, they would not have it any other way”2. Therefore, we should recall Karl Marx in Capital when he makes the point that a king is a king only because people treat him as such (as opposed to any natural qualities of the person). Following from this, Slovene philosopher Slavoj Zizek argues that the “proper way to get rid of this illusion is thus not the murder of the king but the dissolution of the network of social relations within which a certain person acquires the status of a king”1. That is, in our context, the solution for transforming the political economy of the region is not to “decapitate the SG” so to speak (i.e., simply replacing one with another), but to change the very network of relations that invest power in the position of the SG (and by extension the Forum and the CROP) as the arbiters of Pacific regionalism.
So when Forum Leaders meet this November the question we should be concerned with is not who the new SG will be but rather how long will we continue to invest our political and development hopes and ambitions in the Forum? How can we foster new forms of pan-Pacific political solidarity and organisation that will directly challenge the existing power and class relations set the region on a new path towards autonomy and a secure future for all the people of the Pacific?
- Slavoj Zizek, For They Know Not What They Do (London: Verso, 2008), 254.
- Epeli Hau’ofa, ‘The New South Pacific Society – Integration and Independence’, In, We We are the Ocean: Selected Works (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2008), 11-23.