The smiles and unity at the Pacific Islands Forum mask the tough questions put aside for another day

At the closing of the Pacific Islands Forum, the leaders came out of retirement smiling, cut a giant cake with a sword and then, in an impromptu moment of diplomatic bonhomie, posed for a selfie after Anthony Albanese walked out her phone, Ellen DeGeneres style.

It was literally a picture of harmony.

“It was a very successful meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum,” Albanese said at his press conference after the leaders’ retreat. “We are a family when it comes to the Pacific and there was a good spirit of cooperation and dialogue around a common interest.”

While the last in-person summit in Tuvalu was about bringing climate action to Australia, this year’s was about Pacific unity – with the notable exception of Kiribati.

The leaders of Tonga, Palau, Papua New Guinea and the vice president of French Polynesia joined Albanese in monitoring the state of origin, while Jacinda Ardern teased him about the result the following day.

Even Manasseh Sogavare, the Prime Minister of the Solomon Islands, who has had less positive things to say about Australia in recent months after signing its security agreement with China, praised Albanese at the start of their bilateral meeting with a Hug.

Albanese attributed the good diplomatic vibes to Pacific leaders’ relief at Australia’s heightened climate change ambition under his government. But while there is certainly optimism among the leaders, one cannot help but think that the big smiles were also the result of vexatious questions facing the region and put aside for another day.

Take coal. This will inevitably be a sticking point between the Pacific nations and Australia, but one that apparently hasn’t come up in the talks at all.

Albanese and Penny Wong were asked if any new coal and gas projects in the pipeline for approval in Australia had been raised by Pacific leaders, and both said no. Albanese declined to answer the justification he would give to Pacific leaders for his government’s failure to rule out new coal and gas projects, saying it was a ‘hypothetical matter’ .

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“I was not asked the question,” he said. “Not a single person today raised such issues in the meeting, or in any of the meetings I held.”

But it will only be hypothetical for so long.

Pacific leaders have consistently told countries, including Australia, that they must quickly ditch coal and commit to no new fossil fuel projects if the world is to meet its goal of keeping warming below 1, 5°C, which is necessary for all Pacific Island countries to survive. .

It was a big difference between this year’s forum and the one in 2019, which was attended by Scott Morrison and hosted by Tuvalu – a low-lying atoll considered one of the most at risk due to rising sea levels. sea.

Coal was discussed directly and repeatedly with Scott Morrison. Pacific island leaders tried to include coal-power transition commitments in the communiqué, but Australia deleted them, nearly derailing the talks.

There have been no such attempts this year. So why this change in tone?

It’s not that they’ve changed their stance on coal’s place in a heating world. Frank Bainimarama, Prime Minister of Fiji, told reporters after the leaders retired that his country’s “demand” to all countries, including Australia, was to end their “dependency on fossil fuels, including the coal”.

First, Pacific leaders feel real relief at the Australian government’s change in tone and policy on climate change.

Australia is now singing from a climate songbook that sounds more like those of Pacific island leaders.

Second, there is recognition that the Australian government is new and needs some time to adjust before the Pacific really pushes for more.

“Obviously they’ve been in the job for about two months now, but the message coming from them is very positive, so hopefully we can work on the issues that the Pacific stands for,” said Simon Kofe, Foreign Minister from Tuvalu, on the sidelines of the forum.

But he agreed that if Australia were to approve new coal projects, it would put them at odds with the rest of the region. “I mean, that’s one of the issues that we disagreed with the previous government on,” he said.

The other conversation that has been postponed is China.

Pacific leaders have demonstrated in recent months just how important the Pacific Islands Forum bloc is in negotiations with the superpower. Pacific leaders were able to refuse the broad regional economic and security deal proposed by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in May, largely because they were able to say the issue was to be discussed at the Forum of Pacific Islands.

Pacific countries have to walk a delicate line when it comes to China and it is a response that has given them security in numbers, while showing China that there is an established regional architecture that must be respected.

Typically, at the Pacific Islands Forum, each year there is a meeting the day after the Leaders’ Retreat where partner countries such as China, the United States and Japan can make presentations.

It was expected that China would use this meeting to reintroduce its regional agreement, but this meeting of partners has been postponed until later in the year on a date yet to be determined.

Incidentally, the fact that the Partners’ Dialogue was canceled but US Vice President Kamala Harris was given the opportunity to speak to leaders and China virtually is significant.

Federated States of Micronesia President David Panuelo told the Guardian the postponement of the partners’ meeting was intended to give leaders a breather from the intense geopolitical tension.

But that is a discussion deferred rather than dealt with.

Pacific leaders will still meet China later this year at a post-forum event and they will still have to decide what to do about China’s amended regional deal.

So while leaders can enjoy the glow of a friendly and successful forum, some difficult conversations have been pushed back.

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