Last year, the former Cook Islands Prime Minister won a tightly contested and acrimonious ballot to take on the leadership of the Pacific’s top regional body, the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), and promptly found himself in the middle of a political hurricane.
PIF split apart almost immediately, leading to laborious and often painful negotiations as Pacific officials – with assistance from Australia and New Zealand – try to salve wounded egos and hammer out a compromise that will keep Micronesian countries in the big tent.
The secretary-general’s fate is likely to be finally resolved – one way or another – at the Pacific Islands Forum leaders meeting, which is loosely pegged to be held in the middle of next month, in Suva.
Micronesian leaders have already publicly declared they expect him to walk away from the job and hand it over to one of their candidates, which leaves Puna publicly humiliated and exposed.
But if Puna is a dead man walking, he did not look like that this week.
In fact, he looked very much like a man with something urgent to say.
Pointed remarks with cameras rolling
The stage was a big one. Late on Saturday, all eyes swivelled to Suva as China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi landed in Fiji’s capital, his fourth stop on an island-hopping tour covering no fewer than eight Pacific Island countries.
His trip came the same week as new Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong touched down in Fiji and pledged to listen to Pacific leaders.
She revealed she would be heading back to the Pacific on Wednesday night, meeting with leaders in Samoa and Tonga “to renew and strengthen Australia’s deep ties of friendship and family” and to discuss what further help Australia can offer to Tonga after a disastrous underwater volcanic explosion earlier this year.
Wang’s first publicly advertised engagement was with Puna at the PIF Secretariat the next day.
The visit had a somewhat perfunctory air. China is a Dialogue Partner with PIF, but the brute reality is that Beijing is impatient to bypass the regional organisation, and has moved quickly to set up its own direct dialogue with all Pacific Island countries it has ties with.
China talks a lot about consensus, but has done very little to seek it.
Right now, its diplomats are in a hurry, with no time for navigating the careful (sometimes torturous) processes of negotiation and consensus building at the core of PIF.
So it was hard to escape the feeling that Wang’s Sunday PIF stop off was a bit of a courtesy call, a polite nod to Pacific regionalism before the foreign minister got down to the real business of meeting with Fiji’s prime minister and regional heavyweight Frank Bainimarama, as well as playing host and impresario for the second China-Pacific Island Countries Foreign Ministers’ Meeting.
The Chinese officials shepherding Wang through the Secretariat certainly weren’t treading carefully.
When they saw the ABC’s cameraman positioned to film the greeting, they objected loudly and angrily, arguing the visit was limited to Chinese and Fijian media only.
One minder even placed herself directly in front of the ABC’s camera.
PIF’s impressive media representative, Lisa Williams-Lahari, (not a woman who is easily intimidated) had to rather forcefully remind them that they were visitors rather than hosts, and that PIF – not China – was setting the rules for media.
Fijian journalists also backed the ABC in an impressive display of solidarity.
But the tension among Chinese government minders didn’t dissipate after the foreign minister arrived.
When Wang sat down in one of the secretariat’s beautiful timber meeting rooms, he nodded politely to Puna, smiled briefly at the gathered cameras and paused, seemingly waiting for them to depart the room.
But before they left, Puna had something he wanted to say.
Instead of delivering pleasantries, the PIF secretary-general laid out three “key issues” that would be at the core of their discussions.
“Firstly, urgent and ambitious climate change action,” he said, with cameras rolling.
“Our forum leaders have identified climate change as the single greatest threat facing our Blue Pacific region.
“Action to keep our world below 1.5 degrees is vital for the future prosperity and wellbeing of our region.”
This is a message Puna has delivered time and time again to all major countries and big polluters, including Australia. It is not one reserved for China alone.
But putting it directly to the foreign minister of the world’s largest carbon emitter in front of a live television feed was still a pointed bit of political messaging.
Chinese officials – perhaps expecting nothing more than an anodyne welcome statement and bland formalities – were clearly not happy.
The ABC filmed some of them gesticulating and complaining to PIF staff after media left the room.
China tried to rush through regional security agreement
It wasn’t the only time in Suva that things didn’t go perfectly to plan for Wang and the Chinese foreign affairs officials following in his wake.
Much has already been written about China shelving – for now – its contentious “Common Development Vision” regional agreement.
The draft text was leaked less than a week before Wang’s meeting with foreign ministers, presumably by someone intent on spiking it.
Chinese officials had clearly been instructed to try and get the sweeping pact over the line ahead of Wang’s flagship meeting with Pacific foreign ministers, handing Beijing an emphatic (and very public) diplomatic victory while potentially reshaping the region’s strategic contours.
They poured considerable time and energy into rushing it through.
But this is not how Pacific diplomacy usually works.
You catch brief glimpses of the diplomatic strain this caused in the carefully weighed statements from some Pacific Island leaders.
Samoa’s Prime Minister Fiamē Naomi Mata’afa said rather pointedly that, “We have not made a decision [on the pact] as we did not have enough time to look at it.”
In other words: This is important. We are not beholden to your timetable. Don’t rush us.
Australia and the United States will hardly be celebrating – Beijing has signalled it will press ahead with negotiations and it seems determined to land the agreement in one shape or another.
But they still see clear signs of over-reach from China.
One Western official told the ABC that quite a few Pacific Island nations had reservations about the pact and that several foreign ministers in the gathering didn’t want it on the meeting agenda at all.
“When it was leaked, it was dead. It was probably dead before that,” they told the ABC.
Prime Minister Fiamē has even suggested that the Pacific Island Forum may be best body to discuss China’s proposal, in the spirit of Pacific unity.
China will resist that at all costs.
Among PIF’s members are four Pacific nations that recognise Taiwan rather than Beijing.
Australia and New Zealand are also PIF members, and it’s safe to assume they’d throw all their energies into sinking the pact.
That explains why some analysts are predicting that if the whole debate lands in PIF’s lap it will inevitably become the agreement’s graveyard.
China warned not to side-step PIF
But for now, this is speculation.
We don’t know if other Pacific Island countries would be happy to handball this particular hot potato to PIF.
We don’t even yet have a clear idea of what they said to Wang Yi about the pact when they sat down with him on Monday.
In fact, the only public statement from a Pacific Islands representative who attended the meeting has come from the office of – you guessed it – Henry Puna.
And once again, it makes for interesting reading.
The secretary-general made a rather jaundiced reference to the “increasing intensity, of geopolitical manoeuvring in our region today” and the “recent influx of high-level visits to our Blue Pacific”.
“Many of these partnerships are not new,” the transcript reads, “but have been re-invigorated in recent years, often in direct response to geo-political positioning.”
That’s aimed as much at the United States – which is hurriedly reopening its embassy in Solomon Islands as Beijing forges new security links with Honiara – as it is at China.
But Puna also seized the chance to remind Beijing that sidestepping his organisation – while racing to build new commercial and security connections throughout the Blue Pacific – risks opening new fault-lines in a region already grappling with mounting challenges.
“Being a Forum Dialogue Partner is not without its own expectations and responsibilities,” the transcript reads.
“The chief among which, is to nurture a relationship that is respectful of our shared values, built on joint collaboration and partnership, works with and through our regional mechanisms and progresses mutually agreed priorities.”
And the intensifying contest for power and influence in the Pacific means that countries – “including China” have to place “increasing value [on] our collective ability to think, live, engage and deliver, as one Blue Pacific region”.
Yes, it’s carefully worded. But the message is unmistakable.
Henry Puna may, or may not, be heading for the door soon. But either way, he’s not quite done yet.