Samoa's regional political role "critical": expert

Samoa plays a critical role in shaping the regional politics of the Pacific Islands, an expert in defence and security studies at Massey University in New Zealand says.

Dr. Anna Powles, senior lecturer at the Massey University's Centre for Defence and Security Studies, shared her view ahead of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat Special Leaders Retreat next month, where a virtual meeting of Pacific leaders will see them vote for the forum’s next Secretary-General.

Five Micronesian states, including Palau have threatened to pull out of the Forum if their candidate Ambassador Gerald Zackios is not chosen, as P.I.F.S. Secretary-General to succeed incumbent Dame Meg Taylor.

Palau President Thomas E. Remengesau, Jr. wrote to Samoa’s Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sailele Malielegaoi last November asking the P.M. for his support.

However, Dr. Powles said it would be a “shock” if Palau, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Nauru, and the Federated States of Micronesia did walk out, but she is not convinced that they will.

“It would be a shock to the region if the Micronesian member states walked away from the Forum, however, I am not convinced that they will” Dr. Powles said via e-mail in response to questions from the Samoa Observer. “I believe in the Pacific way, consensus will be reached. Samoa has a critical role in terms of regional leadership to play in these conversations going forward.”

The departure of the Micronesian states from the P.I.F.S. would create “a potential fracture,” she told the Samoa Observer. 

“It would certainly create a potential fracture within regional governance architecture if the Micronesian states departed and established their own sub-regional grouping. 

However, sub-regionalism in the Pacific is robust and this, in turn, strengthens the regional architecture.”

“However, as the economic fallout of COVID-19 is fully felt in the region and geopolitical pressures become more acute, the region is facing an increasingly unsettling time and the Forum will be under increasing pressure from external forces and local concerns.”

In 2019 Dr. Powles spoke at the Women, Peace and Security Summit hosted by the Samoa Government.

Her research is focused on how state and non-state actors are shaping regional security and the intersection of geopolitics and local security dynamics in the Pacific Islands.

Her passion for the region is a family affair: her grandfather was Sir Guy Powles, the last Governor of Western Samoa before it became independent in 1962.

Incumbent P.I.F.S. Secretary General Dame Meg, who has been to Samoa numerous times, has played a crucial role in balancing those dynamics, she notes.

“Dame Meg has played a particularly critical role in balancing these dynamics and building regional consensus and vision. The next S.G. will be faced with an increasingly challenging regional and international environment,” added Dr. Powles.

"She believes the delay in holding the meeting to discuss the next Secretary-General has been more about process and not politics.

“I believe the delay in holding the meeting is due to process more than politics. Ensuring the process is agreed upon by all member states is critical to ensuring support for the outcome."

The Samoa Observer contacted the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade for comment on Samoa’s participation the P.I.F.S. Special Leaders Retreat next month. But no response was received as of press time. 

Two key issues atop the agenda of next month’s special retreat agenda are the COVID-19 global pandemic and the appointment of the next Secretary-General.

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