When Anthony Albanese lands in Suva on Wednesday to attend his first Pacific Islands Forum, he will be heading to a regional meeting that looks good.
While it was thought the forum would focus on China’s growing influence and as an opportunity for Australia to showcase its new climate credentials, Albanese will arrive in a group grappling with other issues.
What was hoped to be a joyful event – the first time the Pacific Islands Forum has met in person since 2019 – now looks somewhat tense, after two countries left the forum last week.
The group was rocked on Sunday by a letter to the secretary general from the president of Kiribati saying the Micronesian country was quitting the region’s top diplomatic corps, unhappy with attempts to bridge the rift that has rocked the forum for nearly 18 months.
That dispute – which began with the Micronesian states dissatisfied that their candidate for Pacific Islands Forum secretary-general had been ignored – was reportedly healed by a burst of diplomacy from Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama last month, which saw a series of offers made to Micronesian countries, including the promise that the top job would go to a Micronesian candidate next time around. But it seems Kiribati was not satisfied.
Slightly murkier is the departure of the Marshall Islands, which also left the forum, but it appears against its president’s wishes, and perhaps not permanently, due to complicated internal legal issues.
Other leaders are conspicuously absent, including the President of Nauru, who is not present due to Covid concerns.
The chairs where the leaders of Kiribati and the Marshall Islands should have sat were laid out and left empty during the opening session of the forum on Tuesday, and the blow to regional unity was recognized from the outset by the Prime Minister Fijian.
“It is my personal belief,” Bainimarama said, “that we are the most resilient as a family…And as President, I assure each of our brothers and sisters in the Pacific that there is a seat open for you at this table… The people and government of Kiribati have always been and always will be part of our Pacific family.
The forum divide comes at a difficult time. Leaders are due to launch the Blue Pacific 2050 Strategy, which sets out the plan for the Pacific for the next three decades, at the end of the week in what should have been a triumphant moment. But at the heart of this document is a regionalism and a collective way of acting that has been harshly questioned.
“The Blue Pacific Strategy 2050, which will be endorsed by leaders next week, speaks in very strong language about the importance of regionalism, the Pacific Way; losing Kiribati on the eve of this strategy is really devastating, actually,” said Dr Anna Powles, a security expert at Massey University in New Zealand.
China and the climate
Heightened geopolitical tension in the region simmers under every discussion and interaction, in light of an accelerating pace of Chinese engagement in recent months.
“It’s very clear that geostrategic competition is the backdrop to this Pacific Islands Forum like never before,” says Dr. Wesley Morgan, Senior Fellow at the Climate Council.
While Pacific leaders have acknowledged this context – Bainimarama declaring in his keynote address that the “highly competitive” global geopolitical landscape presents “major superpower rivalry, alongside a number of middle powers all clamoring for shape the world in their favor” – they seem determined to keep it in the background.
The usual post-forum dialogue partner meeting, where partners like China, the US and the EU can make presentations, has been postponed from this week to give the meeting some breathing space. forum, although the US vice president will join virtually to deliver a speech to the leaders.
But, there is one topic on which Pacific leaders seem visibly more relaxed than in the past.
Leaders appear to breathe a sigh of relief that when they step down at the Leaders Retreat on Thursday to discuss key issues, there will be no big climate battle between Pacific Island leaders and Australia, as there will be. there were during the last in-person Pacific Islands Forum, held in Tuvalu in 2019.
Morgan said he expected Albanese to receive “some goodwill just from the fact that he’s not Scott Morrison”, describing the former prime minister’s handling of the 2019 forum as ” shockingly bad”.
The Prime Minister of Fiji and former Prime Minister of Tuvalu, Enele Sopoaga, both said following the 2019 PIF that they were shocked and deeply offended by Morrison’s behavior at the leaders’ meeting, Bainimarama telling the Guardian that Morrison was “very insulting and condescending” and could bring China’s Pacific leaders closer.
Pacific leaders are openly expressing optimism about what the change of government in Australia will mean for their ability as a regional body to engage in more ambitious climate action.
“The message coming from them is very positive,” said Simon Kofe, Tuvalu’s foreign minister. “We are optimistic that they will be on the same wavelength as the Pacific.”
But leaders will be watching closely to see if the positive rhetoric translates into the kind of action that Pacific countries – which are among the world’s most vulnerable to the effects of the climate crisis and also among the world’s most impressive leaders in on climate action – demanded.
“For Pacific leaders, there’s an element of ‘wait and see,'” Sopoaga says. “I think it’s up to Australia to stand up and show it’s serious.”
Sopoaga says the Australian government’s new 43% emissions reduction target is not adequate given the need to halve global emissions this decade in order to be on track to keep global warming below 1.5°C.
“They need to do a lot more,” Sopoaga said. “Going towards targets of 75% to catch up with the rest of the world. These are very concrete gestures that the leaders of Suva will look at.”
Australia will also have to navigate the always thorny subject of potential new coal and gas projects, in light of loud and insistent calls from the Pacific that coal is incompatible with meeting climate goals.
“on reducing our emissions and playing a strong global role,” he said, something the Albanian government had pledged and Pacific leaders had welcomed.
Australia will hope that is enough and that Albanese can leave the leaders’ meeting on Thursday alongside the Pacific leaders, with past differences firmly behind them.