Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat Secretary General Henry Puna.
Photo/Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat.
The 52nd Pacific Islands Forum Leaders Meeting in the Cook Islands this week comes at a time when there is significant interest in the region.
Pacific Islands Forum Secretary General Henry Puna says he’s pleased with the commitment of Pacific leaders to regionalism, even though the list of challenges to regional unity continues to grow.
The leaders meeting in the Cook Islands this week comes at a time when there is significant interest in the region.
Pacific states are being courted by countries far-and-wide, the most high profile, and potentially the most fraught, being the competing interests of China and the United States. But Japan, France, India, the UK and even Saudi Arabia are just some of a growing list of countries stepping up their engagement in the Pacific.
The US, UK and Australia will have sizeable delegations at the 52nd Pacific Islands Forum Leaders Meeting, and it’s reported that representatives from Cuba, Ghana, Norway, Turkey, Singapore, Portugal and the Philippines are also expected to attend.
Puna told Pacific Mornings in an exclusive talanoa there’s no doubt that regional unity is being disrupted by international interest.
“Outside partners seeking to exert influence in the region are using that bilateral approach to try and influence our members to go with them,” he says.
“And of course, at times that might bring a disruption to our common regional agenda, it might even at some points in time bring some tension. But overall, I'm pleased with the commitment of our leaders to regionalism.”
When asked how fragile the regional unity is, he prefers to flip the question.
“How solid is it? It’s an aspiration for the region to be united. It’s based on the acknowledgement that we are so small in the world and that our voice will not matter if we were to go it alone. And that's the founding principle of the forum back in 1971, that in order for us to have a say on the global stage and to be heard, we need to come together.”
There’s a certain irony when the man preaching unity is the person who was at the centre of a spat that threatened to tear apart the 52-year-old organisation.
The nomination of Puna to the secretary general role sparked consternation amongst five Micronesian members, who believed there was a “gentlemen’s agreement” that the rotation of the role would mean the next head of the organisation would be Micronesian.
In a hotly contested vote, forum leaders elected Puna 9-8 in February 2021, over the Micronesia region’s nominee. The Micronesians threatened to withdraw from the forum but in the end only Kiribati pulled out, then rejoined again early in 2023.
Puna is a rare breed of secretary general, only one of two secretaries-general, who have had the advantage of having sat around the leaders table and then acted as the regional organisation’s chief executive.
The 74-year-old first entered politics in the Cook Islands when he won a Manihiki by-election in 2005. He became Prime Minister in 2010 and then eventually stood down in 2020 with the intention of making a bid for the secretary general role, handing on the prime ministerial baton to his deputy, and current Prime Minister, Mark Brown.
Puna’s credentials make him well-placed to play a unifying role when differences emerge. And there are differences aplenty, the most recent being the vote on the UN resolution calling for a humanitarian truce in the war between Israel and Hamas.
Six Pacific countries voted with the US and Israel against the resolution, namely Fiji, Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Papua New Guinea, Nauru and Tonga. Only the Solomon Islands voted in favour, as did New Zealand and Australia. The Pacific countries that abstained were Kiribati, Palau, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu. Samoa did not vote.
Japan’s release of treated and diluted radioactive wastewater from the tsunami-damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant also saw countries taking different stances, many supporting the the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) view that the dumping was consistent with IAEA Safety Standards.
Deep sea mining is another issue that throws up stark differences of opinion, with some calling for a moratorium, while others believe they have a right to advance the economic benefits that could be derived for their countries, while still protecting the environment.
“Yes, of course there are times when our national priorities might not align well with the regional priorities,” Puna says.
“You have to respect national sovereignty in those cases. But nevertheless, I think the bottom line for us is that despite those instances where our differences might emerge, it is very important for us to always get back to the basics of being united and speaking as one region.”
Security sensitive issue
When asked what subject is causing the most tension between Pacific countries, he cites security as the most sensitive issue.
“Security for us is to do with the welfare of our people. Their safety, their security, their wellbeing. We are not fussed about military security. That is not our idea of security,” says Puna.
“I mean, we have the Boe declaration that actually sets out in very clear terms what security means to us here in the Pacific. And it is that that we are at pains to prove to the world, ‘Hey, if you want to engage with us on security, this is what it means for us not having naval vessels or planes patrolling our area, our waters and our air’. No, it is about the welfare of our people.”
The security deal that the Solomon Islands struck with China has caused some disquiet within the region. That was further exacerbated by Solomon’s Prime Minister Manasseh Damukana Sogavare's apparent snubbing of US President Joe Biden by delegating his foreign minister to attend a second US-Pacific leaders summit in September, while he returned home.
Sogavare later said that nothing had come from the first US summit in 2022 and that he wanted to avoid a “lecture” by the US.
At the 2022 summit the US committed to provide more than US$800 million in assistance to island states and a further US$200 million was promised during the 2023 event, but none of it has yet materialised.
However, Puna remains confident that the US president and his administration are genuine and serious about their commitment to the Pacific.
He accepted “there's been no material effects or action on the ground” but the American system has “issues and challenges” - a reference to the three weeks the Congress was without a speaker, which threatened a government shutdown. Louisiana Representative Mike Johnson was eventually elected to the role on 25 October.
But Puna says he and leaders of the forum are “satisfied with the genuineness and the seriousness of President Biden's commitment to all the promises that he's made to our leaders”.
President Sogovare is not attending the PIF Leaders Meeting, as his country is preparing to host the Pacific Games. And it’s also being reported that the leaders of Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea will not be in the Cook Islands.
Our prime minister-elect Christopher Luxon will not be there due to coalition talks to form a government, so Aotearoa will be represented by outgoing deputy prime minister Carmel Sepuloni and the National party’s Gerry Brownlee.
That means of the 18 PIF members, four are not being represented by their national leaders - another issue that is likely to raise questions about unity within the forum.
A key deliverable at this meeting will be the endorsement of the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent implementation plan. There have been murmurings from some countries about the amount of work required to support the plan, when they’re already dealing with complex national and regional issues.
But Puna is adamant that the strategy is key for Pacific countries to work together to advance regional development.
“It has been a mammoth undertaking by our staff, but also by the forum members because we can only put it together based on consultations and the views that we obtained from our members. And when you imagine that there are 18 different members of the forum, it is a mammoth undertaking,” says Puna.
“I can tell you that at the beginning, some of our CROP (Council of Regional Organisations in the Pacific) agencies even had scepticism that we will be in a position to deliver ... and I'm pleased to say that as of now, the secretariat together with our members are in a position to deliver on that.”
Like a sports captain who credits his team for any success, Puna is diplomatically modest when asked about his legacy as secretary general, given his terms ends in May 2024 and this will be the last leaders meeting he’ll attend in that capacity.
He’s proud of the work everyone has done on the 2050 strategy, which was endorsed by leaders during his tenure and now the implementation plan that will bring it to life is expected to be adopted in the Cook Islands this week.
“Well, I'd like to think that everything that we've achieved under my tenure is because of the regional effort that has gone into it and for the sake of our members and achievement by our members. I'm only there to guide and to be there when required to, I guess, point things in the right direction. But it's been an absolute privilege.”
And then there’s the curly, potentially divisive issue of who is going to be the next secretary general after Puna steps down.