Pacific leaders had good reason for cheer at a special Pacific Islands Forum meeting in Fiji last week. The return of Kiribati is a big win for the region, but countries will need to stay united as they face a broad range of questions, Sam Sachdeva writes

Comment: The most enduring image from last week’s Pacific Islands Forum meeting in Fiji came before official talks had even begun.

Kiribati president Taneti Maamau’s embrace of forum secretary-general Henry Puna – the man whose appointment played a major role in the Micronesian nation’s withdrawal from the regional organisation last year – spoke volumes about the relief on both sides that reconciliation had been achieved.

As Puna himself put it, posting a video of their greeting online: “No words needed.”

* Pacific strategy set as questions linger
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The special leaders’ retreat in Nadi was above all a chance for the forum to put on a public show of unity with the return of Kiribati to the forum, agreement having been reached on the issues that had caused such unhappiness amongst the Micronesian nations.

Puna’s appointment as secretary-general in early 2021, apparently in breach of a ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ to rotate the role between the different sub-regional groupings, became the catalyst for a wider debate about the respect and resources afforded to Micronesia in contrast to Polynesia and Melanesia.

The Suva agreement signed in June last year was an attempt to right those wrongs, and with leaders now confirming exactly how that deal will be made a reality (along with Kiribati belatedly signing on) the hope is that the rift has been healed.

“The fracture is now history: we’ve all collectively decided to move on and today we’ve cemented that moving on, so we’re not looking back,” Puna said at a press conference marking the end of the retreat.

That cement comes in the form of confirmation that former Nauru president Baron Waqa will replace Puna atop the forum next year, along with the establishment of a sub-regional forum office in Kiribati and a Pacific Ocean Commissioner’s office located in Palau.

The new offices have been funded for three years by the Australian and New Zealand governments – a sign of how seriously the two countries take the need for a united forum in the face of geopolitical manoeuvring in the Pacific.

Presidential visit in the offing

After US vice-president Kamala Harris delivered a virtual address to Pacific leaders at last year’s summit in Suva, president Joe Biden himself may attend this year’s event in the Cook Islands; Micronesian leaders seemed to let the cat out of the bag in an announcement welcoming Biden’s visit later this year, although the trip is yet to be confirmed by the White House.

In turn, Fiji prime minister and outgoing forum chair Sitiveni Rabuka said forum members had agreed to explore the possibility of establishing a permanent office in the US for a special envoy.

The appointment of Nauru’s Waqa, who has previously clashed with Chinese diplomats and whose country is one of just four Pacific nations to recognise Taiwan rather than China, could be seen as a sign that Beijing will struggle to make further inroads with its push for greater influence in the region.

But with China having already signed a security deal with the Solomon Islands, and made a failed attempt to secure a similar regional pact, there is no sign of the country giving up on the Pacific.

Among the priorities in a ‘concept paper’ for the China-led Global Security Initiative released last week was call to “pay high attention to the special situation and legitimate concerns of Pacific island countries in regard to climate change, natural disasters and public health”.

The country has also named a special envoy to the Pacific Islands, current Chinese ambassador to Fiji Qian Bo, as part of its efforts to strengthen relationships in the region.

“What is important for us is that if we are serious about our 2050 strategy, we’ve got to find every possible way of being together, staying together and working together as one region – that is the most important priority for us.”
– Henry Puna, Pacific Islands Forum secretary-general

Exactly how the region should work with the US and China is a topic likely to cause further debate within the Pacific.

But with claims that Kiribati’s forum withdrawal had been the result of Chinese influence, the country’s return is even more important to those who fear the destabilising impact of meddling from outside interests.

Of course, to portray the Pacific nations as mere pawns is to deny their very real autonomy, and to overlook the other issues that are of equal importance to the region (if not more so).

Cook Islands prime minister and new forum chair Mark Brown spoke about Japan’s plans to dump treated nuclear wastewater into the Pacific Ocean, saying the Japanese government had agreed to have its scientists work with Pacific experts and the International Atomic Energy Agency to assess the plan’s safety.

Then there is the forum’s 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific, a document with lofty goals that will not become a reality without hard work and strong advocacy from all nations.

“What is important for us is that if we are serious about our 2050 strategy, we’ve got to find every possible way of being together, staying together and working together as one region – that is the most important priority for us,” Puna said.

The success of the special retreat is one small step towards that goal, but plenty of difficult terrain remains, along with obstacles in need of navigation.

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

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