This year’s Pacific Islands Forum has closed with a sense of optimism after some trying times – but plenty of pressing challenges and unanswered questions remain for the region. Sam Sachdeva reports from Suva.
Judging a meeting’s success by the amount of sunshine left at its conclusion may be unorthodox, but it was the measuring stick Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern chose for the Pacific Islands Forum.
“The fact that we are here, concluding and discussing the outcomes, and it’s still daylight, I think is a bit of a sign – it was a lengthy meeting last time.”
That is an understatement: when leaders last met face to face in 2019, the talks at Tuvalu stretched towards midnight as Australia butted heads with other members over climate change commitments.
By comparison, this year’s proceedings in Suva finished at a positively prompt 4pm, with the sturdy approach of forum chair and Fiji prime minister Frank Bainimarama perhaps helping to avoid any undue delays.
There was also a significant incentive for leaders to show a united front following geopolitical disruptions of recent months and the withdrawal of Kiribati from the forum, as Dr Anna Powles told Newsroom.
“The forum has demonstrated this week why it is so essential to the region,” Powles, a senior lecturer at Massey University’s Centre for Defence and Security Studies, said.
It was a theme Bainimarama himself adopted, talking of “positive strides towards restoring the solidarity of our forum family” in the wake of the leaders’ retreat.
The centrepiece of the talks was the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Content, a Pacific plan to tackle the most significant regional issues in the coming decades.
“Most of our island states take the ‘friends to all, enemies to none’ approach and that is the best approach for us … however, certain issues like security, it does have regional impacts.”
– Henry Puna, Pacific Islands Forum secretary-general
Unsurprisingly given recent events, there is a notable emphasis on what the document describes as “heightened geopolitical competition”, as well as increasing commercial and state-sponsored interest in the region’s natural resources.
“The regional security environment is becoming increasingly crowded and complex due to multifaceted security challenges and a dynamic geopolitical environment.”
With the Pacific region not immune to challenges to the rules-based order, the strategy proposes the development of “a more flexible and responsive regional security system” – although exactly what that will look like is not spelled out.
With the Solomon Islands’ security deal with China and superpower rivalry in the spotlight throughout the week, it was unsurprising forum secretary-general Henry Puna was swiftly asked to explain how a new approach would affect bilateral security deals in the region.
“Most of our island states take the ‘friends to all, enemies to none’ approach and that is the best approach for us, because we can’t afford to be enemies with anybody and there are opportunities to be had … there’s no problems with that,” Puna said.
“However, certain issues like security, it does have regional impacts, and it is on those issues that leaders have asked each other to share … so that everybody knows what is happening and what might be impacting their own national borders.”
Ardern herself expressed a similar sentiment, saying New Zealand’s strong opposition to the militarisation of the Pacific did not mean nations couldn’t make their own choices – merely that they should talk to others first.
‘Strength of feeling on climate change’
It is not military bases but climate change the strategy has named as the most significant security issue facing the Pacific, a stance in line with previous documents but one which nevertheless reiterates the stakes at play.
The forum leaders agreed to back Vanuatu’s push for the International Court of Justice to issue an advisory legal opinion on countries’ climate obligations, a commitment Ardern described as “a real illustration of the strength of feeling in this forum”.
The new Australian government has received warm praise from Pacific leaders for its talk of turning the page on climate policy – but Bainimarama highlighted one area where Anthony Albanese is aligned with Scott Morrison.
The Fijian leader called on countries to “end our fossil fuel addiction, including coal”, but during the election campaign Albanese said he would welcome jobs that came from new coal mines in the country (albeit with environmental approvals).
Another sore point remains Kiribati’s ongoing absence from the forum, although there were some positive developments with news Bainimarama had managed to speak to the country’s president Taneti Maamau after a period of radio silence.
“One of the things that the region was was very clear on some time ago, by adopting the language of the Blue Pacific was really a call for the rest of the world to stop seeing our region as a collection of small landmasses, but rather a large expanse of Pacific Ocean that of course unites us, but also is incredibly important.”
– Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern
Governance changes to address the concerns of the other Micronesian states still need work to be made a reality – a statement that applies to much of the agenda items this week, from the 2050 strategy to Vanuatu’s climate judgment push and Tuvalu’s own call for island nations to retain their statehood even if they lose their land.
“It needs to be absolutely clear there is buy-in from all the Pacific countries – there’s clear buy-in to the concept, but it’s the implementation that is going to be challenging,” Powles said. “That’s when these concepts, these big picture strategies fall down.”
That is likely to lead to continued scrutiny of the Pacific, as is the ongoing jockeying for position between the United States and China in the wake of US vice-president Kamala Harris’ speech to the forum.
But if the world’s gaze remains on the region, Ardern said there would be many pairs of eyes looking back.
“One of the things that the region was was very clear on some time ago, by adopting the language of the Blue Pacific was really a call for the rest of the world to stop seeing our region as a collection of small landmasses, but rather a large expanse of Pacific Ocean that of course unites us, but also is incredibly important.
“The environmental health of our oceans, our reliance of course on the ocean as a food source, that in itself makes us a really important region, and this is where I think the region recognises that actually, we need the rest of the world to hear the impact that their actions in other parts of the world – particularly on the environment and climate change – what impact it has on ours.”