Pacific islands summit begins amid US-China battle for influence
Key summit comes as region grapples with the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change and US-China rivalry.
Sydney, Australia – The 51st Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) leaders meeting, which takes place this week in Fiji, is shaping up to be the most significant regional summit in years.
The COVID-19 pandemic, climate change and the US-China rivalry have rattled the strategic region in the years since its leaders last convened in person in 2019.
Even so, several parties are conspicuously absent from the event.
Kiribati, a nation of 33 islands located roughly halfway between Australia and Hawaii, on Sunday announced it had again withdrawn from the PIF due to a rift stemming from a contested leadership transition that allegedly sidelined Micronesian nations. Kiribati and four other Micronesian states had threatened to pull out last year, but “Micronexit” was averted after a deal was brokered to keep the bloc on board early last month.
The forum, which includes 16 small island nations along with Australia and New Zealand, is also breaking with convention and postponing the in-person Dialogue Partners ministerial meeting, a gathering of representatives from its 21 external partners, including the United States and China, which typically coincides with the summit. Keeping partner countries at bay potentially gives Pacific nations more breathing space to focus on internal affairs as the outside world becomes increasingly involved in their region.
“It is a good decision in my opinion,” Robert Bohn, a former Vanuatu legislator who now serves as an adviser to the foreign minister, told Al Jazeera.
“We need to get our house in order before we talk to the rest of the world. We need to reestablish consensus with one another as we enter the post-COVID era.”
The forum aims to break ground on a myriad of issues, ranging from climate change to security and connectivity, as part of its new vision for regional development – the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent.
“It’s about taking control of our economic sovereignty,” Zarak Khan, the PIF Secretariat’s Director of Programmes and Initiatives in Fiji, told Al Jazeera.
“The 2050 Strategy is our north star. It’s about securing our region’s prospects, people, and place. It’s also about investing in scientific research, information technology, e-commerce and education to realise the potential of our young population. We’ll do this by harnessing sustainable finance to build a knowledge economy to complement the blue economy.”
Although the strategy is slated to be launched this week, some leaders say the process is still far from complete.
“Our own position is still a bit fuzzy when it comes to it,” said Bohn of Vanuatu’s stance on the initiative.
“I don’t hear a well-formulated answer on exactly how the strategy will be implemented, and I don’t think other neighbouring nations are much further along than we are.”
Bohn said that while developed countries would prefer to see the region adopt a single strategy, it is not clear whether Pacific Island nations are ready for a uniform approach.
“There’s quite a bit of work to do to come up with a strategy that works,” he said, adding that the varying conditions across the region make a “one-size fits all solution” hard to grasp.
Khan said the 2050 vision would not be implemented in one go.
“There will be stepping stones to get there. The Pacific takes inspiration from development models from Asia, such as Singapore’s, which used incremental five-year plans to achieve long-term goals,” Khan said.
“After Thursday’s launch, we will enter the implementation plan phase, which will see new meetings in September and October where we will discuss agency delegation, resource allocation, identify specific targets and introduce enabling action plans that will be finalised at that time.”
Overcoming the lingering effect of the pandemic on the region will be among the key items on the agenda.
“Pacific island countries remain extremely vulnerable to the health and economic effects of the pandemic,” Melissa Conley Tyler, program lead at AP4D, a Canberra-based think tank, told Al Jazeera.
“For example, as well as the immediate impact on tourism, the closure of schools for long periods during the pandemic has had enormous long-term effects on education.”
Conley Tyler said Pacific leaders are concerned about the potential for a “lost decade”, or even lost generation, due to the pandemic.
“The daily, widespread struggles for access to basic services – such as healthcare, education, financial services, markets, and opportunities for income generation – present fundamental challenges,” she said.
The “Blue Economy” – a broad term that describes approaches to sustainable maritime economic activity – is expected to feature prominently in the forthcoming strategy.
Khan said Pacific nations have much to teach the world about sustainable fisheries practices, which can be done through consultations with 2050 Strategy institutional partners.
Bohn said Vanuatu, an archipelago of about 320,000 people located some 800km (500 miles) west of Fiji, is rearranging its bureaucracy for the first time in decades to better focus on the blue economy. The new Ministry of Fisheries, Oceans and Maritime Affairs is expected to be established by the end of the year.
“We are focusing on the blue economy, but we are also going green, and are increasingly expected to meet the same standards as developed countries, which presents another challenge,” Bohn said.
“So we are wondering how developed countries are going to approach climate change and what is coming in terms of tangible assistance. We will need to purchase new eco-friendly vessels, for instance, but where are the funds for that?”
Khan said sustainable financing would be crucial to ensure small island states are not overburdened with debt.
“There have been instances where small Pacific states prematurely graduated from Least Developed Country (LDC) status, which kicked the development aid ladder from under their feet.”
Climate financing is a concern shared by policy experts in Australia, which is not only a PIF member but also the region’s largest foreign aid donor.
“I hope one of the things on the agenda is how Australia can support the Pacific’s international leadership and diplomacy on climate action,” Conley Tyler said.
“Australia has changed its declaratory policy on climate, reaffirming that climate change is the single greatest threat to the Pacific region,” she added.
“Australia must join with the Pacific on meaningful collective diplomacy on climate change. Australia has raised the possibility of co-hosting a Conference of the Parties [COP] meeting with Pacific Island countries and I hope this is something that is discussed at the summit.”
Australia has not been alone in suggesting avenues for dialogue. While Pacific leaders have sought to put a pause on geopolitical manoeuvring between the US, its allies and China, bigger powers are continuing to jockey for influence.
China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi is attempting to make his presence felt by holding a virtual meeting with 10 Pacific Island counterparts on Thursday – the final day of the forum. The meeting comes after China in May failed to convince leaders to sign on to a security pact that would have ratcheted up its influence in the region.
“We’re busy enough getting ready for the summit without undue interference coming from outside,” Bohn said. “There is a risk the meeting distracts from the summit itself, but there is also a danger here for China.”
“They want to be careful about making demands island nations do not want to put up with. Pacific Islanders don’t like to be pushed too hard.”
The US, Australia, New Zealand, the UK, and Japan recently launched their Partners in the Blue Pacific (PBP) initiative to promote “more effective and efficient cooperation in support of Pacific Island priorities”.
Yet there has been criticism from some Pacific studies scholars that the PBP nations are “co-opting” the Blue Pacific narrative and “undermining” the Pacific’s own established principles for their own geopolitical ends.
“They need to be careful how they approach it,” Bohn said.
“My advice to those five countries would be: don’t let your reaction to China’s involvement get you to react in a way that is also not acceptable to the Island nations. I hope all parties can slow down and listen to the Island nations themselves.”