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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Daniel Hurst in Rarotonga

Pacific Islands Forum: four leaders fail to attend as China-US rivalry takes centre stage

Sitiveni Rabuka, Anthony Albanese and Mark Brown
A composite image of Fiji’s Sitiveni Rabuka, Australia’s Anthony Albanese and Cook Islands’ Mark Brown ahead of the Pacific Islands Forum this week. Composite: Getty/AAP

The leaders of three Melanesian countries are missing the region’s most important annual political gathering, dealing a blow to attempts by Pacific island countries to project unity at a time of rising geopolitical rivalry.

Officials confirmed the prime ministers of Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea would not be travelling to the Cook Islands for the Pacific Islands Forum (Pif) meeting running from Monday to Friday.

The forum is an 18-member grouping of 16 Pacific nations, including Australia and New Zealand, plus two French territories.

The incoming prime minister of New Zealand, Christopher Luxon, is also remaining at home to focus on coalition talks to form a government. That means four of the 18 Pif members are not being represented by their national leaders.

The talks were expected to be dominated by the climate crisis and growing US-China rivalry.

Manasseh Sogavare and Xi Jinping shaking hands in front of the two countries' flags
Solomon Islands prime minister, Manasseh Sogavare, meets Chinese president, Xi Jinping, in Beijing in July. Photograph: Reuters

Solomon Islands – which has drawn closer to China since signing a security agreement in 2022 – is sending a delegation led by the foreign minister, Jeremiah Manele, not the prime minister, Manasseh Sogavare.

Sogavare travelled to Beijing in July to sign a raft of deals including a new police cooperation agreement and said in September that the US should stop “lecturing” Pacific leaders.

Sogavare’s office explained his absence from this week’s talks by stating he was “tied down with duties as minister for Pacific Games” and parliament, Reuters reported. The Pacific Games are due to be held in Solomon Islands later this month.

The prime minister of Vanuatu, Charlot Salwai, was believed to be staying home to focus on responding to Cyclone Lola, which made landfall on 25 October and has inflicted significant damage on his electorate of Pentecost Island.

The PNG prime minister, James Marape, was yet to comment on his reason for not attending.

The Cook Islands – roughly halfway between New Zealand and Hawaii – is hosting the annual leaders’ meeting under the theme Our Voices, Our Choices and Our Pacific Way.

The event runs from Monday until Friday with most of the meeting held on the island of Rarotonga. However, leaders will travel to Aitutaki for intimate talks in a boat on a lagoon on Thursday.

At a media briefing in Rarotonga, the deputy secretary general of the Pif secretariat, Esala Nayasi, played down the absences, saying the four leaders who were “not able to join” would be represented by high-level delegations.

The Australian prime minister, Anthony Albanese, is expected to arrive in the Cook Islands midweek to join the talks after he wraps up his trip to China.

Pacific Elders’ Voice, a group of former leaders across the region, has called on Pif to postpone a decision on whether to support Australia’s bid to co-host the 2026 UN climate conference in partnership with the Pacific.

One member of the group, the former Tuvalu prime minister Enele Sopoaga, said the leaders’ summit “must unanimously call on Australia to stop approving Pacific-killing coal and gas projects”.

“We reiterate that the Pacific Islands Forum should not rubber stamp Australia’s bid and that any endorsement must be based on commitments from Australia to take tangible climate action in the short term and commit to a fossil fuel phase-out in the near future,” Sopoaga said.

Vanuatu and Tuvalu have been leading a push for Pif leaders to endorse “a global, just and equitable phase-out of coal, oil and gas”.

But the prime minister of Fiji, Sitiveni Rabuka, appeared to express a pragmatic view during a visit to Australia last month. “We’re realistic about our demands,” he said.

Rabuka is expected to use the event to promote his concept of designating the Pacific as a “zone of peace” – a nod to the region’s desire to avoid being drawn into an escalation of tensions between the US and China.

The week’s Pif event is also expected to draw many delegates from further afield, including the US, the UK and Germany.

Pif has 21 dialogue partners including China, India, Japan and the US.

The US delegation will be led by its ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield. The US has been racing to reopen embassies and deepen links with Pacific countries after the China-Solomon Islands security pact.

The director of the Lowy Institute’s Pacific Islands Program, Meg Keen, said leaders would probably assert the Pacific’s right to set its own direction “and push back at geostrategic priorities trumping Pacific development priorities”.

“There is huge diversity in this region, development priorities differ as do associations with major powers. The challenge for Pacific countries is to maintain strong regional cohesion,” Keen said.

“Where there are differences, such as seabed mining, major power recognition and development priorities, they need to maintain the flexibility to respect differences and build on the capacity to make the right decisions for each sovereign country.”

Keen said the top priority in the Pacific was climate action and the mobilisation of finances “to adapt and thrive in the face of the climate catastrophe”.

“This forum, Pacific island countries will be pushing not only for better access to global and donor finances to deal with the growing gaps, but also to broaden and diversify their options through more access to private sector and philanthropic societies,” she said.

Keen said one Australian priority was to gain support for the “Pacific Quality Infrastructure Principles” – a push to ensure that infrastructure investments advance local content, responsible borrowing, sound project oversight and private sector opportunities.

“Australia sees these principles as the strength of traditional donors like itself, and the weakness of Chinese infrastructure projects,” Keen said.

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