15 Jul 2022

Superpowers cast big shadow on Pacific forum

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 15 July 2022

There's climate change, gender equity and Covid-19 to contend with on the Pacific stage this year, but the region's most significant diplomatic meeting hasn't been smooth sailing.

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Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Unity and family are key words at the Pacific Islands Forum in Suva this week, but no shows by some island states and the presence of superpowers have disrupted efforts to tackle serious challenges like climate change.

In a sign of the growing interest in the geopolitical activity in the region, about 180 journalists from Australasia, Japan, China and the US are there to see how events unfold.

"Suva is heaving," says Sam Sachdeva, Newsroom's national affairs editor. He says there's been a sobering atmosphere at the forum this week as leaders met face to face for the first time in three years.

"I don't think people are mincing words about the scale of the challenge," says Sachdeva. "Having said that, there is optimism."

Fiji prime minister and forum chair Frank Bainimarama in his opening welcome spoke of the region being caught in the crossfire of the "three deadly C's: Covid, climate and conflict, each factor dangerously compounding the other, that is the inescapable reality of the situation".

On top of that, words used to describe Kiribati's surprise last minute no show have ranged from disappointing to devastating.

Many leaders at the forum hope the US-China competition will bind the region rather than pull it apart, but there's also frustration that geopolitics sucks attention away from other problems, says Sachdeva.

"There is simply a risk that the more time the nations spend talking about geopolitics and dealing with geopolitics the less time they have to dedicate themselves to climate action, fisheries action and all the other pressing issues for the region," he says.

Sachdeva tells The Detail why the forum is so important to a region that is made up of many island nations with populations that are smaller than some New Zealand cities and the value of being able to speak with one voice. That has been undermined by Kiribati's withdrawal.

"The more leaders who jump out of the forum the more vulnerable it becomes. Yes, it's Kiribati for now, but do other states start to move out and what does that mean in terms of how great powers like the US and China engage with the region?"

Tuvalu Foreign Minister Simon Kofe says Kamala Harris' address to the forum and the focus on geopolitics draws attention away from climate change.

"If you view it from our perspective you have these superpowers fighting for influence in the region and yet we have countries like Tuvalu fighting for existence. We're on totally different wavelengths," he says.

Kofe also explains to The Detail about the push to secure the permanency of statehood and claims to maritime zones for Tuvalu and other Pacific countries in the worst case scenario that they will disappear under rising seas.

"It's a future-looking initiative and our hope is that the Pacific can get behind that as well."

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