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Pacific Islands summit begins amid US-China battle for influence poverty and development

Sydney, Australia – The 51st meeting of Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) leaders, taking place this week in Fiji, is shaping up to be the most significant 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.

Nevertheless, several parties are conspicuously absent from the event.

Kiribati, a 33-island nation roughly halfway between Australia and Hawaii, announced Sunday that it had pulled out of the PIF again due to a rift over a controversial leadership change that allegedly sidelined Micronesian nations . Kiribati and four other Micronesian states had threatened withdrawal last year, but the “micronexit” was averted after a deal was brokered early last month to keep the bloc on board.

The forum, which includes 16 small island nations alongside Australia and New Zealand, is also breaking with the convention, postponing the face-to-face ministerial meeting of dialogue partners, a meeting of representatives of its 21 external partners, including the United States and China, which typically coincides with the summit. Keeping partner countries in check may give Pacific nations more breathing room to focus on internal affairs as the outside world increasingly meddles in their region.

“In my opinion, it’s a good decision,” Robert Bohn, a former MP from Vanuatu who now serves as an adviser to the secretary of state, told Al Jazeera.

“We need to get our house in order before we talk to the rest of the world. We must restore consensus with each other as we enter the post-COVID era.”

A strip of land between the Pacific Ocean and a lagoon in Funafuti, Tuvalu.
The Pacific Islands Forum leaders meeting this week will present its 2050 strategy for the blue Pacific continent [File: Mario Tama/Getty Images]

The Forum aims to break new ground on a variety 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 director of programs and initiatives for the PIF Secretariat in Fiji, told Al Jazeera.

“Strategy 2050 is our north star. It is about securing the prospects, the people and the location 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 do this by using sustainable finance to build a knowledge-based economy that complements the blue economy.”

Though the strategy is set to launch this week, some executives say the process is far from complete.

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

“I don’t hear a well-formulated answer as to how exactly the strategy is being implemented, and I don’t think other neighboring states are much further along than we are.”

Bohn said that while developed countries would prefer the region to adopt a unified strategy, it was not clear if Pacific island nations were ready for a unified approach.

“There is still work to be done to develop a strategy that works,” he said, adding that finding a “one size fits all” solution is difficult due to the varied conditions in the region.

Khan said the 2050 vision will not be implemented in one fell swoop.

“There will be stepping stones to get there. The Pacific draws inspiration from development models from Asia like Singapore’s, which used incremental five-year plans to achieve long-term goals,” Khan said.

“Following the launch on Thursday we will move into the implementation plan phase where new meetings will be held in September and October where we will discuss agency delegation and resource allocation, identify specific targets and roll out action plans which will be finalized at that time .”

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

Overcoming the ongoing impact of the pandemic on the region will be one of the most important items on the agenda.

“The Pacific island nations remain extremely vulnerable to the health and economic impacts of the pandemic,” Melissa Conley Tyler, program director at AP4D, a Canberra-based think tank, told Al Jazeera.

“Besides the immediate impact on tourism, for example, the closure of schools for long periods during the pandemic has a huge long-term impact on education.”

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

“The daily, widespread struggles over access to essential services — such as health care, education, financial services, markets and income opportunities — pose fundamental challenges,” she said.

The “Blue Economy” – a broad term that describes approaches for sustainable maritime economic activity – is to play a prominent role in the coming strategy.

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

Bohn said Vanuatu, an archipelago of about 320,000 people 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 is expected to be in place by the end of the year.

“We’re focused on the blue economy, but we’re also going green, and there’s an increasing expectation that we’ll meet the same standards as developed countries, which is another challenge,” Bohn said.

“So we are wondering how developed countries are going to tackle climate change and what concrete help is coming. For example, we need to buy new environmentally friendly ships, but where are the funds for that?”

Khan said sustainable financing is crucial to ensure small island nations don’t become overburdened with debt.

“There have been instances where small Pacific countries have prematurely achieved Least Developed Country (LDC) status, which has knocked the development aid ladder underfoot.”

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

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

“Australia has changed its declarative climate policy and reiterated that climate change is the single biggest threat to the Pacific region,” she added.

“Australia must engage with the Pacific in meaningful joint diplomacy on climate change. Australia raised the possibility of co-hosting a Conference of the Parties [COP] Meeting with Pacific Island countries and I hope this is something to be discussed at the summit.”

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

Australia was not the only country to suggest opportunities for dialogue. While Pacific leaders have sought to disrupt geopolitical maneuvering between the US, its allies and China, the major powers continue to struggle for influence.

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi is trying to make his presence felt by holding a virtual meeting with ten Pacific Island counterparts on Thursday, the final day of the forum. The meeting comes after China failed in May to persuade leaders to sign a security pact that would have strengthened its influence in the region.

“We’re busy 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 risk for China.”

“They want to be careful when making demands that island states don’t want to put up with. Pacific Islanders don’t like to be pushed too hard.”

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

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

“They have to be careful how they approach it,” Bohn said.

“My advice to these five countries would be: don’t let your response to China’s involvement tempt you to respond in a way that is also unacceptable to the island nations.” I hope all parties can slow down and listen to the island nations themselves.”