More eyes are on the Pacific than ever before as the existential threat of climate change competes with China’s growing influence for headlines. But the Pacific Islands Forum itself faces internal challenges this week, as Sam Sachdeva reports

After months of far-flung diplomacy, Jacinda Ardern’s next destination is a region much closer to New Zealand both in geography and culture.

As the Prime Minister flies to the Pacific Islands Forum in Fiji on Monday afternoon, the stakes in Suva are in some respects higher than for recent trips to Washington and Brussels.

Speaking to the Lowy Institute in Australia last week, she made a point of emphasising how critical the forum was to the region, saying New Zealand was “committed to the Pacific Islands Forum as the vehicle for addressing regional challenges”.

Leaders will start the summit on the back foot, with 1News Pacific correspondent Barbara Dreaver revealing on Sunday evening Kiribati had withdrawn from the organisation with immediate effect.

The decision stems from Micronesian members’ outrage over last year’s selection of former Cook Islands prime minister Henry Puna to become the forum’s secretary-general, supposedly in breach of a gentleman’s agreement that it was the Micronesian bloc’s turn to hold the position.

The five Micronesian states announced their decision to withdraw from the forum in the wake of Puna’s appointment, citing a lack of support and resources from the wider organisation.

The rift seemed to have been repaired last month, following a meeting between Fiji prime minister Frank Bainimarama and Micronesian leaders which led to an agreement to restructure governance arrangements – but that sense of relief has proved premature.

In a letter to Puna announcing the withdrawal, Kiribati president Taneti Maamau said the country “remains concerned by our collective inability and to some degree, our reluctance as a region to address the core concerns” raised by the secretary-general stoush.

“For Kiribati, this is a matter of principle and one that touches on the need for equity, equality and the inclusiveness of all members in the architecture of our premier regional institution.”

The appointment of Henry Puna to head the Pacific Islands Forum sparked anger from Micronesian nations in early 2021. Photo: Johnny Blades/RNZ

For now, there are no signs the four other Micronesian states will follow suit, with Maamau noting it was the “sovereign right” of others to accept the Suva agreement.

But the loss of even one member means the return of the “big dark cloud… hanging over the Pacific” which David Panuelo, president of the Federated States of Micronesia, said last month had been lifted.

The news is also likely to further intensify debate over China’s role in the region, given Kiribati switched its diplomatic ties from Taiwan in 2019 and is the site of a Chinese-backed project to upgrade a remote airstrip relatively close to Hawai’i.

The fallout from Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi’s recent tour of the Pacific – and his stalled effort to sign a regional security deal – is sure to feature in talks, along with the successful security deal signed between China and the Solomon Islands.

In her Lowy Institute speech, Ardern said local security challenges should be “resolved locally, with Pacific Islands Forum members’ security being addressed first and foremost by the forum family”.

Dr Anna Powles, a senior lecturer at Massey University’s Centre for Defence and Security Studies, describes Samoan prime minister Fiamē Naomi Mata’afa’s call to discuss the regional pact at the forum as “a move to effectively block the Chinese pact in its current form”.

While Pacific countries favour strong economic relationships with China, Powles says they are wary of the regional security proposal, and “frustrated by the disruptive nature of strategic competition and by the implications that Pacific leaders are pawns in a geopolitical chess game”.

That chess game has seen a flurry of moves in recent months, with Wang’s Pacific tour followed by a swift visit from new Australian foreign minister Penny Wong, then the announcement of a US-led ‘Partners of the Blue Pacific’ initiative which includes New Zealand.

US diplomat Kurt Campbell promised more diplomatic facilities in the region, as well as an increased frequency of visits from senior politicians and officials.

“In our Blue Pacific continent machine guns, fighter jets, grey ships and green battalions are not our primary security concern. The single greatest threat to our very existence is climate change.”
– Inia Seruiratu, Fiji defence minister

But Marco de Jong, a Samoan New Zealander and Pacific historian, says Pacific leaders will be wary of New Zealand and Australia offering “talking points and sweeteners” without a genuine change of approach.

“They will want to talk [about] China and might even let Pacific nations pick their fruit, but their actions in outside arenas do not instil confidence that they can offer genuine partnership apart from Western military interests,” de Jong says.

While the US-China rivalry will loom over proceedings, the prospects of any direct clash have been reduced due to the forum’s decision to cancel the usual meeting with “dialogue partners”, such as the US and China, who are not full forum members.

Fiji defence minister Inia Seruiratu provided a reminder of the gap between the priorities of Western nations and those of the Pacific at last month’s Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore.

“In our Blue Pacific continent machine guns, fighter jets, grey ships and green battalions are not our primary security concern. The single greatest threat to our very existence is climate change.”

Pacific Elders’ Voice, an independent grouping of Pacific leaders including former forum secretary-general Dame Meg Taylor, has expressed frustration over the focus on China at the expense of climate change and last week called for urgent action to reduce carbon emissions.

Forum’s health put to the test

Leaders at the forum are also set to discuss Vanuatu’s push for the International Court of Justice to issue an advisory opinion on the impact of climate change on human rights, which advocates say could set a critical precedent for states’ obligations.

Our Government does not appear to have formalised its stance on the proposal, but de Jong says both New Zealand and Australia will face significant pressure to act as “a potential conduit for greater ambition on a world stage”. 

“There are parallels here with the 1984 Tuvalu Forum, where the Hawke government colluded with America to bring a toothless anti-nuclear treaty that preserved nuclear interests.

“With split priorities they may try to seek a compromise that ultimately condemns the region, sending it down a pathway towards war and climate disaster.”

The 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent, set to be signed off by leaders this week, is intended to lay out a long-term vision for the region, taking account of existential threats and geopolitical concerns alike.

But exactly where the forum finds itself by the end of the week is almost as significant. As Powles notes: “The health of the forum – and regionalism – will be on display this week in Suva.”

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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