For the Pacific Islands Forum chair and Cooks Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown, the 52nd leaders meeting in the Cook Islands next week is about "the healing of our region".
Despite the leader's retreat in Fiji earlier this year seeing the return of Kiribati, mending a rift, leaders remain divided over several key issues heading into next week's meeting.
In an interview with RNZ Pacific in Rarotonga as leaders and delegates start trickling in for the annual gathering, Brown was firm on the fact that Pacific leaders will not be pushed around inlight of heightened geopolitical interest.
"It's important that we control the narrative as Pacific countries, setting our own destiny," Brown said.
He has also confirmed his support for Fiji Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka's peace ocean initiative.
"I think you will find unanimous support [for Rabuka's proposed initiative] from all of the Pacific countries," he said.
He also confirmed that the Israel/Gaza war will be on the agenda. This follows the majority of Pacific states - including Fiji - voting against a United Nations resolution for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas.
"Israel is a very special place for many of our Pacific Island countries," he said.
Asked if it is good enough that only New Zealand and Solomon Islands voted for the UN resolution, Brown's response was: "This is a matter that leaders will discuss".
"Pacific countries that I've spoken to are mindful that they don't want to see unnecessary humanitarian disasters occurring."
Baron Waqa question
When questioned on the suitability of controversial former Nauru president Baron Waqa being a candidate to become the next Pacific Islands Forum secretary-general, Brown said: "I don't want to speculate on what could happen and what might not happen."
However, he confirmed that Forum leaders are expected to discuss the appointment Waqa leading the regional organisation.
Waqa was a controversial figure during his time as Nauru president, for his treatment of refugees and the judiciary, while there are accusations, he received bribes in a case that remains open. His candidacy was accepted by the leaders as part of the Suva Agreement earlier this year.
"Without wanting to pre-empt what leaders' views will be, I will await until we've had discussions on progressing the Suva Agreement terms and conditions including the appointment or the nomination of Baron Waqa and see how that transpires."
The expectation is that incumbent secretary-general Henry Puna will stand down from role in the first half of 2024.
Puna has been drumming home the importance of regionalism all year.
"Politics and diplomacy are very difficult areas to navigate, particularly when you have a collective of 18 sovereign countries," he told media in June.
"We realise and acknowledge that in the world, we have nothing. And yet, by coming together, we can have some bargaining power."
Griffith Asia Institute's Pacific Hub project lead Tess Newton-Cain said anything is possible at this year's Forum Leaders Meeting, and that includes Micronesian leaders ditching Waqa as their nominee for the top job.
"It's open to them to change their mind, they could do that. I don't think it's very likely. But you know, anything's possible," Dr Newton-Cain said.
On the issue of US funding or the lack of it, Brown was asked whether President Joe Biden is being sincere in his promises and will deliver the US$200 million pledged to the region, he said: "I believe he is sincere… very sincere about the US reengagement into the Pacific."
Asked about Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare's concerns to Brown, who had stated that financial support promised to the region last year still had not reached Pacific countries, he dampened them down by saying he sympathises with the difficulties the US has on the domestic front.
But then he acknowledged the frustrations.
"It's always been frustrating for Pacific countries, when we talk to some of our development partners. We've been very clear about what we see as priorities for us.
He said there is a, "need for a change in the global financial architecture that hasn't delivered".
Climate change priorities
Pacific Elders' Voice, an independent group of for Pacific leaders and diplomats have issued a statement outlining their priorities.
"If Australia, NZ, US and other development partners genuinely want to stand shoulder to shoulder with us, it is not enough to merely talk about climate change, nuclear and Blue Pacific but take real, tangible action now," the joint statement said.
They have expressed concern around the integrity of partner nations.
"Sometimes it shouldn't be a question about who gives you more money, but rather on who will respect your integrity and independence," Pacific Elders' Voice member, former United States Congress and University of Guam president, Professor Robert Underwood said in September.
Their biggest call is around clamping down in Australia's climate rhetoric.
"It is our recommendation that Pacific Leaders defer their decision to support Australia's bid until Australia has made progress on ending support for fossil fuels," they said in an open letter in August.
"The impacts of climate change are not a distant concern. They are happening here and now, and they're disproportionately affecting Pacific Island nations like ours. We are Australia's allies. Australia's neighbours. Australia's family. We ask that we are treated as such," the letter said.
However, last month, Rabuka said Australia's fossil fuel industries cannot be shut down immediately.
Rabuka's comments have been labelled as "harmful and destructive" by civil society.
"We want them to tone down [their fossil fuel industry activities]," Rabuka told the media at a press conference last week after meeting with his Australian counterpart.
And Brown agrees. "Phasing out fossil fuels, that's going to be a long process," he said.
"We recognise that there is over a trillion dollars' worth of fossil fuel subsidies that are still being put out this year."
But he did also acknowledge, "every country needs to step it up".
"We're into COP28, we've been making these statements for decades for years now. And still, the carbon emitting countries are not meeting their commitments," Brown said.
Disruptive dialogue partners
Dr Newton-Cain has dubbed the 52nd Forum Leaders meeting as "the return of the dialogue partners".
"Everybody wants access to Pacific leaders," she said.
"Everybody wants to be stamping their mark on this geostrategic theatre that people insist on describing the Pacific."
Massey University defence and security senior lecturer Dr Anna Powles said that with approximately 750 delegates registered for the event it is set to be "very crowded".
Dr Powles said there were questions remaining around the implementation of the 2050 strategy and funding holes in the Suva agreement.
"It contains a number of elements to it, which will also require additional funding from likely Australia and New Zealand to support elements within the Suva agreement," she said.
The president of Hungary was in Papua New Guinea earlier this week.
Even the Latvian Ambassador is on a tour of the region at the moment, she said.
"[Dialogue partners] are going to suck up a lot of oxygen and energy."
The United States has confirmed it is sending a delegation led by the US Representative to the United Nations, Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield.
"The US is sending a delegation of at least 10, we know that there are very high-level delegations coming from the UK and elsewhere," Dr Newton-Cain said.
"But with the growth in the number of partners comes the need for a bit more structure and discipline about how they operate and how they interact with leaders at meetings," she said
She explained that previously there have been conflict points between dialogue partners, particularly between Taiwan and China.
The Chinese delegation has walked out of a meeting in the past because they weren't given a speaking slot that they wanted, she said.
"The last time the Forum met in the Cook Islands Hillary Clinton attended as Secretary of State. And she was something of a showstopper."
She said there was an ongoing review of the Forum architecture and "the role and participation of dialogue partners is part of that".
Heavyweight no shows
New Zealand's incoming Prime Minister Christopher Luxon will not be travelling to Rarotonga, as he prioritises forming a government.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade told the travelling media that work is underway to send the outgoing deputy prime minister of the caretaker government, Carmel Sepuloni, accompanied by Gerry Brownlee from the incoming National Party.
It is unclear who will be attending the Forum for Australia with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese this weekend in Beijing - the first visit by an Australian leader to China in seven years.
The Albanese visit ends a hiatus triggered by a string of prickly disputes, including various Chinese sanctions on Australian goods, and back and forth accusations of foreign interference.
Pacific Network on Globalisation coordinator Joey Tau believes both nations absence shows their lack of priority for the Pacific.
"I think New Zealand and Australia for long have seen themselves as key members of the leaders' Forum. I think their absence displays priority, of where the Pacific sits within the policy priorities," Tau said.
"Their absence would mean a lot."
Of the island leaders there is a possibility the prime minister of Vanuatu, Charlot Salwai, will not make it, given the rush in his country to deal with the recovery from Cyclone Lola.
And the Ulu o Tokelau, Kelihiano Kalolo, will not be attending due to domestic issues. Tokelau has associate member status at the Forum.
Tonga's Prime Minister Hu'akavameiliku Siaosi Sovaleni who is also the next chair of the Pacific Islands Forum, is expected to arrive in Rarotonga Thursday Cook Islands time.
The Niue delegation arrives on Saturday, then the 'big Fiji Airways flight' arrives on Sunday at midnight.
Brown said the charter flight is to be packed with delegations from nine countries.
The flight has been put on to make it easier for the Melanesian and the Micronesian countries.
A resilient grouping
Dr Newton-Cain said the Forum has over the years "gone through various iterations in terms of size, membership and what it's called".
She said it was born following the "walk out" of Pacific leaders from the South Pacific Commission in 1971, led by Fiji's president at the time, the late Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara.
The few Pacific countries that had achieved independence including Samoa and Fiji were invited to attend, Dr Newton Cain said.
But they did not get to talk about stuff that really mattered to them.
The leaders were concerned about increased sovereignty and self-determination in the region, nuclear testing and making the South Pacific a nuclear free zone.
"Countries such as France, the US, the UK, New Zealand and Australia, were making decisions about the region," she said.
So, Pacific leaders established a grouping which has gone on to become what is now referred to as the Pacific Islands Forum.
"The first thing it's achieved is that it has lasted for 52 years," Dr Newton-Cain said.
She said despite various "waxing and waning" and even last year's threat to leave by Kiribati, the PIF has continued to operate and function in one form or another.
That is considered a significant achievement, particularly because the Forum did not there was no political bargain, she explained.
"They really did punch above their weight and brought together these coalitions of high ambition to take very important and very complicated global negotiations forward," she said.
For Forum chair and host of the 52nd edition of the leaders meeting, Mark Brown, this meeting is all about finding practical solutions.
The meeting kicks off next week on Monday, 6 November (Cook Islands time). The official programme can be found here.