Pacific Islands are back on the map, and climate action is non-negotiable for would-be allies

20.07.22 By
This article is more than one year old

This article was originally published by The Conversation.
Written by Wesley Morgan, Climate Council Senior Researcher

This year’s Pacific Islands Forum marked the beginning of a more dangerous era as Pacific leaders tried to find common responses to both the climate crisis and sharpening geostrategic competition.

There was unprecedented interest in this year’s forum, held in Fiji’s capital Suva. I should know. I lived in Suva for much of my adult life, which included several years teaching at the University of the South Pacific. I was also in town for last week’s summit.

The annual gathering of island leaders and their counterparts from Australia and New Zealand is typically the one time of year when there’s international focus on the region. But this year’s forum was something else. A huge media pack descended, to the bemusement of many Fijians who felt the meeting was divorced from their daily challenges.

Many journalists were there to cover the growing competition between China and the United States, and attempts by Australia’s new government to shore up its influence. Pacific leaders tried to highlight their own priorities, especially climate change.

After the summit, it’s clear these things are connected. Pacific countries know they’re in a fight for survival, and any country that wants their support must show it’s serious about tackling climate change.

SUVA, FIJI – MAY 26: Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong arrives at Pacific Island Forum on May 26, 2022 in Suva, Fiji. Penny Wong is on her first solo overseas trip since becoming Foreign Minister. (Photo by Pita Simpson/Getty Images)

Competition returns to the Pacific

When the Cold War ended, Pacific island countries “fell off the map” of global geopolitics. Concerns the Soviet Union might establish a naval base in the Pacific had prompted the US and its allies to step up aid to the region in the 1980s. Once the Soviet threat receded, the US reduced its presence by closing embassies in the region.

This year, Pacific nations are back on the map. A security deal signed in April between China and Solomon Islands – which could allow for a Chinese military presence and ship resupply – has alarmed security planners in Washington and Canberra.

Island nations nonetheless tried to keep geostrategic competition off the agenda at this year’s forum. They tried to exclude both China and the US by deferring a dialogue with partner countries that would usually be held the day after the forum leaders’ summit.

Undeterred, Chinese officials pressed to meet with island nations on the day of the leaders’ meeting. Washington trumped Beijing, however, as US Vice President Kamala Harris beamed in via video link to tell Pacific leaders the US would increase aid to the region and step up its diplomatic presence. The US has plans for two new embassies (in Kiribati and Tonga) and a new US envoy to the Pacific Islands Forum.

As forum chair, Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama had invited Harris. A week earlier, he had met with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. After the meeting, Bainimarama said:

“Now that we are on the same page on climate action, the potential of our Pacific partnership is limitless!”

Declaring a Pacific climate emergency

Pacific island countries have been crystal clear for decades that climate change is their greatest security threat. Compared with geostrategic competition, the impacts of a warming planet – stronger cyclones, devastating floods, rising seas and dying reefs – are more immediate threats.

As Fiji’s military commander, Viliame Naupoto, told a regional security dialogue in 2019:

“I believe there are three major powers in competition in our region. There is the US […] there is China (and) the third competitor is climate change. Of the three, climate change is winning, and climate change exerts the most influence on countries in our part of the world. If there is any competition, it is with climate change.”

In recent years failure to do anything meaningful about climate change undermined Australian strategy in the Pacific. At the last in-person Pacific Islands Forum in 2019, the then prime minister, Scott Morrison, blocked the words “climate crisis” from appearing in the final communique. This move led to island leaders saying they would prefer to work with China.

So it was that new Prime Minister Anthony Albanese hoped to reset Pacific relations with strengthened climate targets – by promising to cut Australia’s emissions by 43% this decade.

In Suva, he joined island leaders in officially declaring a Pacific climate emergency. The contrast with Morrison could not have been greater. Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare warmly embraced Albanese and told him Australia remains his country’s security partner of choice.

Working together to tackle the region’s key threat?

Pacific leaders formally welcomed Australia’s new climate targets. But they also told Albanese they expect to see more. Bainimarama pointedly urged him “to go further for our family’s shared future by aligning Australia’s commitment to the 1.5-degree target”.

Island nations see limiting global warming to 1.5℃ as key to their survival – “1.5 to stay alive” is their slogan. The science is clear: if we are to have a reasonable chance of limiting warming to 1.5℃, global emissions must halve by 2030.

A wealthy nation such as Australia – with vast untapped renewable energy resources – should aim to cut emissions by 75% this decade.

Pacific leaders also welcomed Australia’s proposal to co-host a United Nations climate summit, possibly as soon as 2024.

This could be a way for Australia to work with Pacific countries to shape global efforts to cut emissions. It would require significant diplomatic investment from Canberra. Planning to co-host a major climate summit also means we can expect an ongoing conversation with other nations about Australia’s own climate ambition.

No doubt island leaders will press the Australian government to do more. As the region hots up, we will find out just how serious Australia is about helping Pacific countries to counter their key security threat.

Wesley Morgan, Research Fellow, Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University

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