Leaders from Pacific island countries – together with Australia and New Zealand – have just wrapped up their most important annual political talks.
They wrestled with calls to phase out fossil fuels and discussed how to navigate intense rivalry between the US and China, all while trying to keep a lid on simmering internal tensions.
Here’s what we learned from the weeklong Pacific Islands Forum (Pif) summit hosted by the Cook Islands.
Fossil fuel phase-out call watered down
Pacific island countries are especially vulnerable to rising sea levels and extreme weather events, despite being responsible for only a small share of the global greenhouse gas emissions that drive the climate crisis.
That means the climate crisis is always among the highest priorities for any Pif meeting. At the start of this week’s talks, many civil society groups had wanted the 18 members of the regional grouping – including Australia and New Zealand – to endorse “the Port Vila call for a just transition to a fossil fuel free Pacific”.
That declaration – made in March by the governments of Vanuatu, Tonga, Fiji, Niue, Solomon Islands and Tuvalu – said the Pacific would “no longer accept the fossil fuel lie” and should “spearhead the unqualified, global, just and equitable phase out of coal, oil and gas production”.
But the communique issued after the Cook Islands summit on Friday is noticeably vague on this issue, saying only that leaders “aspire” to a just and equitable transition to a fossil fuel free Pacific. They have also added a caveat – presumably with the encouragement of fossil-fuel-producing Australia – acknowledging “that the pathway is not immediate nor is it one-size fits all”.
Environmental campaigners were disappointed that leaders have opted for “aspirational” rhetoric, although the summit did also state a commitment to “the transition away from coal, oil and gas in our energy systems”.
Great power competition steps up
The major powers increasingly see the region as the focus of a contest for influence; the US has been scrambling to reopen embassies and step up its engagement with Pacific countries after China clinched a big strategic win last year, a security agreement with Solomon Islands.
Pif has 21 “dialogue partners”, including the US, China, the UK, India and the EU. This week’s Pif summit was the first time in three years that the regional bloc has invited its dialogue partners to join for in-person talks.
True to form, many sent high-powered delegations backed up with a handful of funding announcements, including for climate finance. The US ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said she wanted to “listen to better understand how the United States can continue to support the region’s priorities”.
The prime minister of the Cook Islands and host of the summit, Mark Brown, had a clear message for the great powers. He said the region was the focus of “heightened geostrategic interest” but that “will not and it should not dictate how we advance and progress the priorities that we have determined”, foremost of which is climate change.
Pacific island leaders are worried about the region being seen as a geopolitical chessboard and a venue for hard power projection, with many governments proclaiming they are “friends to all, enemies to none”.
With this in mind, the prime minister of Fiji, Sitiveni Rabuka, proposed a concept aimed at ensuring great power competition doesn’t slide into conflict. He suggested that Pif leaders should agree to designate the Pacific as a “zone of peace”.
This would involve countries in the region agreeing to refrain from actions that may jeopardise regional order and stability – but it’s also another way to prioritise environmental protection, with Rabuka suggesting conservation would be a core part of maintaining peace.
Speaking after leaders held more informal talks off the island of Aitutaki, Brown said they welcomed Rabuka’s presentation and would flesh out the concept in time for next year’s Pif summit. Brown said next year “we should have some form of declaration ready that will declare our Pacific region an area of peace”. They hoped that this declaration would “cause a rippling out of peaceful intentions”.
Nuclear safety issues remain sensitive
Given the Pacific’s history as a nuclear weapons testing zone, any issue to do with nuclear safety is seen as particularly sensitive.
This was the first Pif leaders’ meeting since Japan began releasing treated water from the site of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster into the Pacific Ocean. Some non-government organisations on the sidelines of the event urged leaders to take a “very firm” stance against Japan’s “very un-Pacific like” plan to discharge more than 1m tonnes of such water.
It was clear this week that some leaders continue to hold concerns about the issue, despite assurances from Japan and a report from the International Atomic Energy Agency that concluded the planned discharge would “have a negligible radiological impact on people and the environment”.
But leaders this week “recognised the sovereignty of members to determine their own national positions on this critical issue” and vowed to step up local monitoring capabilities to keep an eye on any problems.
Australia keeps a lid on Aukus concerns
Pif leaders are also considering how to “revitalise” the longstanding treaty of Rarotonga, also known as the South Pacific nuclear free zone treaty, which requires its parties to prevent the stationing of nuclear weapons and includes measures to prevent the dumping of radioactive waste at sea.
Australia attracted scrutiny this week over its plan to acquire nuclear-powered, conventionally armed submarines under the Aukus deal with the US and the UK. Some Pacific leaders are also wary about plans to build a facility for up to six American nuclear-capable B-52 aircraft in Australia’s Northern Territory.
But Australia’s prime minister, Anthony Albanese, provided his counterparts with an “update” and appears to have avoided a rebellion over the issue. The communique issued afterwards said leaders “welcomed the transparency of Australia’s efforts” and its commitment to complying with all of its international legal obligations.
Regional unity is fragile
Despite repeated calls for Pif to maintain “unity”, given the raft of challenges the region faces, there were fresh signs this week of tensions bubbling below the surface.
The president of Nauru, David Adeang, attended the formal talks on the island of Rarotonga earlier in the week but caused a stir by skipping an overnight leaders’ retreat on the island of Aitutaki. That was apparently triggered by suspicions that Pif might reconsider plans to appoint the former Nauru president Baron Waqa to take over as the regional group’s secretary general next year.
Efforts have been made to bridge deep divides since 2021, when the members of the Micronesian sub-grouping – Nauru, Palau, the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, and Kiribati – all vowed to withdraw from the forum.
That rift was sparked by the election of Polynesia’s candidate to be the secretary general in defiance of a convention that meant it was Micronesia’s turn to provide the forum’s leader. Micronesian states said they had been “disrespected” and not treated as equals. A later peace deal involved the promised appointment of Waqa, who has a controversial history.
The leaders – hoping to avoid another fracture – took the opportunity in Friday’s communique to reaffirm the planned appointment.
https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/nov/11/climate-crisis-and-china-us-rivalry-five-top-takeaways-from-the-pacifics-most-important-summit Climate crisis and China-US rivalry: five top takeaways from the Pacific’s most important summit | Pacific Islands Forum