Kiribati’s Withdrawal and the Future of Pacific Politics

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The Suva Agreement reached in early June was supposed to mark the end of months of uncertainty surrounding the membership of the group of Micronesian countries within the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF). The set of reforms were deemed ‘a watershed moment’, which would ‘prevent Micronesian countries from breaking up the premiere regional body’. Yet, despite the Agreement, the government of Kiribati has withdrawn its membership from the PIF just days before Leaders are due to meet for their annual Forum meeting.

Not surprisingly, the move has been described as ‘devastating’ and a’ damaging blow’ to the PIF, and one that could have serious implications for the regional political body. Many commentators have pointed to the complexity of the decision and that unpacking it in order to fully understand the motivations and implications of it will take some time. But in considering what such implications might be, we should also ask ourselves whether any negative implications for the PIF are necessarily also negative for Pacific regional politics. Or might Kiribati’s withdrawal open up the possibility for new politics in the Pacific?

The Forum is ‘not-all’

We can analyse the withdrawal by Kiribati at two levels, the level of content and the level of form. At the level of content, the government of Kiribati gave a list of reasons for why it chose to stick to its earlier commitment to withdraw from the PIF. These include the reluctance of the PIF to address the grievances which led to the initial withdrawal of Micronesian countries from the Forum, as well the absence of any prior collective agreement by the Micronesian Presidents’ Summit to undo their previous agreement to withdraw. A range of commentators have also offered analyses at the level of content, for example pointing to heightened geopolitical competition in the region which has the Pacific Islands caught in the ‘cross-hairs of major powers’. Others point to pressing domestic issues in Kiribati which prevent it from meaningful engagement in regional bodies such as the PIF. As valid as all these drivers may be, they nonetheless shift focus away from the PIF itself by locating the issue either externally in the geopolitical environment or as a matter of particular national interests.

With a slight shift in perspective, however, we can discern how the gesture of withdrawal by Kiribati is also a rejection of the political form of the PIF. The political form of the PIF is one of a neutral empty container that serves the collection of particular Pacific nations. This form provides individual placeholders to be filled with ‘Pacific’ content – that is, as long as a nation-state can prove its ‘Pacificness’ then there is a place for it within the PIF (notwithstanding institutional processes for membership which is not what is being discussed here). Therefore Kiribati’s decision to withdraw is more than simply refusing to remain a member of the PIF, but is an act of refusing its substantive place and identity within the formal of structure of the PIF. By refusing its particular substantive identity in the PIF, Kiribati’s gesture opes a gap in the PIF structure, a gap which reveals to us that the PIF is ‘not-All’.

To claim that the PIF is ‘not-All’ does not mean that without Kiribati the PIF is missing one of its members that would make it complete. Nor does it mean that that there are other regional organisations and groups other than PIF engaging in regional politics, including non-government and government organisations. Rather to claim the PIF is not-All’ means that the political form of the Forum itself is inconsistent, contradictory. That is, the ’not-All’ is the site of a fundamental deadlock that while being constitutive of the PIF also threatens to undermine it. For this reason it must remain disavowed for the PIF’s authority to appear consistent and legitimate.

The deadlock at the heart of the PIF is the failure to realise post-independence autonomy and self-reliance in the Pacific or the failure to free ourselves of dependency on others despite decolonisation. Indeed, in responding to the Kiribati withdrawal, Dr Jeff Willis tweeted that for some time now ‘Kiribati policymakers have expounded on and taken seriously the idea of “self-reliance” internationally’. While this can be read as simply meaning that Kiribati wants to go it alone, it also points to the inability of the PIF to enable meaningful Pacific self-reliance (if it did, there would be no desire to go it alone). As has been argued in previous posts on Oceania Hypothesis the very idea of Pacific autonomy appears as an impossibility within PIF, it is what is lacking at the heart of the very construct of the PIF. In this way we can draw from Brazilian philosopher Gabriel Tupinamba and claim that the truth about the PIF is that it is a collective whose failure to live up to a universal idea (i.e. an autonomous and self-reliant Pacific) forms the only basis for this idea’s indirect, but concrete, existence1. In other words, the true universal basis of the PIF is not a quality that each particular member state possesses in common (‘Pacificness’), but rather what each lacks or shares not having (meaningful and concrete self-reliance)2.

The constitutive nature of this lack is what animates PIF relations and activity, even—or especially—when we seem at odds with each other3. From this perspective we can see how various forms of Pacific regional politics are failed attempts to this resolve this deadlock, whether in the form of the Pacific Plan, the Framework for Pacific Regionalism, the 2050 Strategy, or indeed the various forms of sub-regionalism. The most significant example of realising a greater level of autonomy in the Pacific is the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA). There are two lessons from the PNA example that are relevant to the current context: Firstly, the PNA was the result of breaking away from a Forum construct and asserting not our particular Pacific identities but our collective resource rights. However to be precise, and this is the second lesson, it was not the abstract idea of resource rights that was mobilised to construct the PNA but rather a shared lack arising from the inability to fully realise these rights through the form of the Forum Fisheries Agency.

The Future of Pacific Politics?

Back to the present. If we remain fixed on the content of Kiribati’s withdrawal (i.e., the particular reasons and motivations given for the decision, the external influences) we will reduce the gesture to a set of particular differences between Kiribati and the Forum and thereby create an unnecessary barrier in the way of collective political action. Rather, we should insist that the move by Kiribati is a gesture which holds open the space for change and transformation in Pacific regional politics. It forces us to ask questions about the future of the PIF and the region more broadly. Indeed, it is the same space for change that was opened during the Forum 2019 Leaders meeting in Tuvalu and, somewhat paradoxically, closed off by the development of 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific. As with the PNA example, the way forward is for Kiribati to insist that the lack in the PIF underpinning the desire for self-reliance does not remain its own. That is, it should assert this lack as a common lack shared with all Forum Island members. In this way, Kiribati holds opens possibility for a new form of collective political organisation in the Pacific.

Therefore the key question posed by Kiribati’s withdrawal is not what can the PIF do to reconcile the particular differences it has with Kiribati. Rather the key question is about the future of the Pacific: if Kiribati wants to be part of a collective Pacific politics then precisely what ‘Pacific’ does it want to be a part of? Does it want a Pacific that remains utterly dependent on others for its future survival? Does it want a Pacific that continues to be a conduit for the global rules based order predicated on US hegemony? Or does it want to be part of political collective that can realise autonomy (freedom) and self-reliance (equality) for all states, no matter how small or vulnerable? In this way we might argue that the future of Pacific regional politics is not being decided this week in Suva through the 2050 Strategy, but rather is being decided in Kiribati.

  1. Gabriel Tupinamba, ‘Concrete universality: Only that which is non-all is for all’, In Sotiris Mitralexis & Dionysios Skliris (Eds), ‘Slavoj Zizek and Christianity’, Routledge.
  2. Todd McGowan, Universality and Identity Politics (p. 23). Columbia University Press. Kindle Edition.
  3. Todd McGowan, ‘Universality and Identity Politics’ (p. 6). Columbia University Press. Kindle Edition.