When Anthony Albanese touches down in Suva today to attend his first Pacific Islands Forum, he will be walking in to a regional meeting that is putting on a brave face.
Absence of Kiribati from the Pacific Islands Forum Leaders meeting is ‘really devastating’ to the body’s long-term strategy, security expert says.
While it had been thought that the forum would be focused on the growing influence of China and as an opportunity for Australia to showcase its new climate credentials, Albanese will arrive to a group wrestling with other problems.
What was hoped to be a joyful event – the first time the Pacific Islands Forum has met in person since 2019 – now feels somewhat strained, after two countries left the forum in the 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 leaving the region’s most important diplomatic body, unsatisfied with the attempts made to heal the rift that has rocked the forum for nearly 18 months.
That dispute – which began as unhappiness among the Micronesian states that their candidate for secretary general of the Pacific Islands Forum had been passed over – was thought to have been healed in a flourish of diplomacy from Fiji prime minister Frank Bainimarama last month, which saw a raft of offers made to Micronesian countries, including the promise that the top job would go to a Micronesian candidate next time. But it appears that Kiribati was not satisfied.
Slightly murkier is the departure of the Marshall Islands, which has also left the forum, but it appears against the will of its president, and perhaps not permanently, as a result of complicated domestic legal issues.
Other leaders are conspicuously absent, including Nauru’s president, who is not attending citing Covid concerns.
The chairs where the leaders of Kiribati and Marshall Islands would have sat were set out and left empty at the opening session of the forum on Tuesday, and the blow to regional unity was acknowledged at the outset by the Fijian prime minister.
“It is my personal belief,” said Bainimarama “that we are at our most resilient as a family … And in my capacity as chair, I assure everyone one of our Pacific sisters and brothers that there is a seat open to you at this table … The people and government of Kiribati have always been and will remain part of our Pacific family.”
The fracture of the forum comes at a difficult time. Leaders are due to launch the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific, which sets out the Pacific’s plan 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 collective way of acting that has been sorely challenged.
“The 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific, which will be endorsed in this coming week by the leaders, talks in very robust language about the importance of regionalism, the Pacific Way; to lose Kiribati on the eve of this strategy is really devastating, actually,” said Dr Anna Powles, security expert at Massey University in New Zealand.
Simmering under all the discussions and interactions is the heightened geo-political tension the region is experiencing, in light of an uptick in tempo in Chinese engagement in recent months.
“It’s very clear that the geo-strategic competition is the backdrop to this Pacific Islands Forum in ways it never has been before,” says Dr Wesley Morgan, senior researcher at the Climate Council.
While Pacific leaders have acknowledged this backdrop – with Bainimarama saying in his opening address that the “hotly competitive” global geopolitical landscape featured “major superpower rivalry, alongside a number of middle powers all clamouring to shape the world in their favour” – they seem determined to keep it in the background.
The usual post-forum dialogue partners meeting, at which partners like China, the US and EU can give presentations, has been postponed from this week to give the forum meeting some breathing room, though US Vice President will be joining virtually to give an address to leaders.
But, there is one topic that Pacific leaders seem visibly more relaxed about than they have in the past.
Leaders seem to be breathing a sigh of relief that when they retire to the leaders’ retreat on Thursday to discuss key issues, there will not be a great climate battle between Pacific island leaders and Australia, as there was at the last in-person Pacific Islands Forum, held in Tuvalu in 2019.
Morgan said he anticipates Albanese will receive “a certain amount of goodwill purely by the fact that he is not Scott Morrison”, describing the former prime minister’s handling of the 2019 forum as “shockingly bad”.
Fiji’s prime minister and Tuvalu’s former prime minister Enele Sopoaga, both said in the aftermath of the 2019 PIF that they were shocked and deeply offended by Morrison’s behaviour at the leaders’ meeting, with Bainimarama telling the Guardian Morrison was “very insulting and condescending” and could drive Pacific leaders closer to China.
Pacific leaders are openly expressing optimism about what the change in government in Australia will mean for their ability as a regional body to commit to more ambitious climate action.
“The messaging that’s coming from them is very positive,” said Simon Kofe, the foreign minister of Tuvalu. “We’re very hopeful that they will be on the same page as the Pacific.”
But leaders will be watching closely to see if the positive rhetoric translates to the kind of action that Pacific countries – which are among the most vulnerable in the world to the effects of the climate crisis and also among the most impressive global leaders on climate action – have been calling for.