Pacific Islands summit begins amid U.S.-China battle for influence

Sydney, Australia – The 51st Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) Leaders’ Meeting, taking place this week in Fiji, is shaping up to be the most important regional summit in years.

The COVID-19 pandemic, climate change and US-China rivalry have rocked the strategic region in the years since its leaders last met in person in 2019.

Even so, several parties are noticeably absent from the event.

Kiribati, a 33-island nation roughly halfway between Australia and Hawaii, announced on Sunday that it has withdrawn from the PIF again due to a rift stemming from a disputed leadership transition which would have discarded the Micronesian nations.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 as well as Australia and New Zealand, is also breaking convention and postponing the in-person Ministerial Meeting of Dialogue Partners, a gathering of representatives from its 21 external partners, including states United States and China, which usually coincides with the summit. Keeping partner nations at arm’s length potentially gives Pacific nations more breathing space to focus on internal affairs as the outside world becomes increasingly involved in their region.

“It’s a good decision in my opinion,” Robert Bohn, a former Vanuatu lawmaker who is now 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 restore consensus with each other as we enter the post-COVID era.

The Pacific Islands Forum Leaders Meeting will this week launch its 2050 Strategy for the Pacific Blue Continent [File: Mario Tama/Getty Images]

The forum aims to innovate on a myriad of issues, from climate change to security and connectivity, under 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, director of programs and initiatives at the PIF secretariat in Fiji, told Al Jazeera.

“The 2050 Strategy is our North Star. It is about securing the perspectives, people and place of our region. It is also about investing in scientific research, information technology, e-commerce and education to realize the potential of our young population. We will achieve this by harnessing sustainable finance to build a knowledge economy complementary to the blue economy.

Although the strategy is expected to be launched this week, some executives say the process is still far from complete.

“Our own position is still a little fuzzy on this,” Bohn said of Vanuatu’s position on the initiative.

“I don’t hear a well-formulated answer on exactly how the strategy will be implemented, and I don’t think the other neighboring countries are much further ahead than us.”

Bohn said while developed countries would prefer to see the region adopt a one-size-fits-all strategy, it’s unclear if Pacific island nations are ready for a one-size-fits-all approach.

“There is a lot of work to be done to find a strategy that works,” he said, adding that varying conditions across the region make a “one size fits all” solution difficult to grasp.

Khan said the 2050 vision would not be implemented all at once.

“There will be steps to get there. The Pacific is inspired by Asian development models, such as Singapore’s, which used phased five-year plans to achieve long-term goals,” Khan said.

“After the launch on Thursday, we will enter the implementation plan phase, which will see further meetings in September and October where we will discuss agency delegation, resource allocation, identify specific objectives and present enabling action plans to be finalized at that time.”

Vanuatu
Recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic will be on the agenda of the 51st PIF Leaders’ Meeting [File: Mario Tama/Getty Images]

Overcoming the lingering effect of the pandemic on the region will be high on the agenda.

“Pacific island countries remain extremely vulnerable to the health and economic effects of the pandemic,” Melissa Conley Tyler, program manager for AP4D, a Canberra-based think tank, told Al Jazeera.

“For example, in addition to the immediate impact on tourism, the closure of schools for long periods during the pandemic has had huge long-term effects on education.”

Conley Tyler said Pacific leaders are worried about the potential for a “lost decade”, or even a lost generation, due to the pandemic.

“The daily and widespread struggles for access to basic services – such as health care, education, financial services, markets and income-generating opportunities – present fundamental challenges,” he said. she stated.

The “blue economy” – a broad term that describes approaches to sustainable maritime economic activity – should figure prominently in the strategy going forward.

Khan said Pacific nations have much to teach the world about sustainable fishing practices, which can be done through consultations with Strategy 2050 institutional partners.

Bohn said Vanuatu, an archipelago of about 320,000 people located about 800 km (500 miles) west of Fiji, is reorganizing its bureaucracy for the first time in decades to better focus on the blue economy. . The new Department of Fisheries, Oceans and Maritime Affairs should be established by the end of the year.

“We’re focusing on the blue economy, but we’re also going green, and we’re increasingly expected to meet the same standards as developed countries, which presents another challenge,” Bohn said.

“So we wonder how developed countries are going to address climate change and what is coming in terms of concrete help. We will have to buy new environmentally friendly ships, for example, but where are the funds for that? »

Khan said sustainable funding would be crucial to ensure small island states are not overburdened with debt.

“There have been instances where small Pacific states have prematurely graduated from least developed country (LDC) status, causing the ladder of development assistance to fall beneath their feet.”

Climate finance is a concern shared by policy experts in Australia, which is not only a member of the PIF but also the region’s largest foreign aid donor.

“I hope one of the things on the agenda is how Australia can support international leadership and Pacific diplomacy on climate action,” said Conley Tyler.

“Australia has changed its declaratory climate policy, reaffirming that climate change is the greatest threat to the Pacific region,” she added.

“Australia must join the Pacific in meaningful collective diplomacy on climate change. Australia has raised the possibility of co-hosting a Conference of the Parties [COP] meeting with the Pacific island countries and I hope this is something that will be discussed at the summit.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi holds virtual meeting with 10 Pacific Island counterparts on Thursday [File: Vaitogi Asuisui Matafeo/AFP]

Australia was not the only one to suggest avenues for dialogue. While Pacific leaders have sought to halt geopolitical maneuvering between the United States, its allies and China, bigger powers continue to vie for influence.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi is trying to make his presence felt by hosting 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 a security pact that would have boosted its influence in the region.

“We are busy enough preparing for the summit without undue outside interference,” Bohn said. “There is a risk that the meeting will distract from the summit itself, but there is also a danger here for China.”

“They want to be careful about making demands that island nations don’t want to accept. Pacific Islanders don’t like to be pushed too hard.

The United States, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Japan recently launched their Partners in the Blue Pacific (PBP) initiative to promote “more effective and efficient cooperation in support of the priorities of Pacific Islands”.

Yet some Pacific studies scholars have criticized PBP nations for “co-opting” the Blue Pacific narrative and “undermining” the Pacific’s own established principles for their own geopolitical ends.

“They have to be careful with their approach,” Bohn said.

“My advice to these five countries would be: don’t let your reaction to China’s involvement cause you to react in a way that is also not acceptable to island nations. I hope all parties can slow down and listen to the island nations themselves.

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