Pacific Islands Forum Leaders Retreat should be a healer

Two gone and one not attending: Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese (who will be missing at the Retreat) takes a selfie of his fellow leaders of the Pacific Islands Forum in Suva, Fiji on July 14, 2022 (Getty Images). Fiji’s Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama and New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern are out of their Prime Ministerial office now.

Venkat Raman
Auckland, February 21, 2023

It is too early to say if the leaders of the Pacific Islands will be able to patch up their differences and get back to the fold but Fijian Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka may be able to claim partial victory at least.

Members of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) countries, including Australia and New Zealand will be in Nadi for their Special Retreat Convened by Mr Rabuka in his capacity as the Chairman.

While Kiribati is back to the Forum after walking out last year, there are still differences between leaders arising out of the security pact that the Solomon Islands signed with China last year, followed by a ‘bilateral pact’ that Samoa signed with Beijing.

China has provided more than US$ 1.5 billion to the Pacific Island countries between 2006 and 2017, either as grants or loans. In addition, it is also involved in many infrastructure projects. The presence of Chinese dates back centuries and there is a closer relationship through diplomacy and culture as well.

These developments are not lost on Australia and New Zealand, and certainly not India, which has a genuine concern in the region. It is not known if Delhi would send a Minister of State or a senior External Affairs Ministry official to the Retreat but neither the Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese nor his New Zealand counterpart Chris Hipkins will attend.

Mr Albanese will be represented by his Foreign Minister Penny Wong, who will visit Kiribati for the first time before flying to Fiji.

Mr Hipkins has chosen to remain in New Zealand to attend to the recovery measures following the devastation caused by Cyclone Gabrielle. His Deputy Prime Minister Carmel Sepuloni will represent him and the country.

Rabuka’s claim

Mr Rabuka is staking his claim to establishing ‘A milestone in regional politics,’ in calling for this Retreat, without saying much about the intricacies involved. He can be given credit for bringing back Kiribati but there are larger issues that remain to be addressed.

“This is a meeting for Reflection, Renewal and Celebration,” he said in a communique issued by his office in Suva today (February 21, 2023) but that should not remain just a narrative.

Ironically, Rabuka’s role as the Chairman of the Forum is ending even as it began. He is set to hand over the portfolio to Mark Brown, Prime Minister of Cook Islands at the Retreat in Denarau Island. The annual meeting of the Leaders is to be held in his country later this year.

“It has been an honour and a privilege for the government of Fiji to have carried the role of Forum Chair. I am very pleased that we were able to contribute to ensuring the ongoing solidarity of our Forum Family and I look forward to welcoming Forum Leaders to Nadi,” Mr Rabuka said.

Pacific Regionalism

Henry Puna, the current Secretary General of PIF also spoke about ‘celebrating Pacific Regionalism,’ when he referred to the forthcoming Retreat.

“Our Pacific regionalism comes under the vision of our 2050 Strategy. This Special Leaders meeting will demonstrate the dedicated commitment of our leaders to building PIF solidarity and unity,” he said.

The Meeting will also consider and finalise the operationalisation of the Suva Agreement endorsed by Forum Leaders at their meeting in Suva in July 2022.

Australia has been showing greater interest in the Pacific than New Zealand, it would seem if an analysis of intra-Pacific relations is of any indication.

Ms Wong has visited the Pacific Island countries eight times since assuming office in July last year, averaging one visit every month.

“The Pacific Islands Forum is central to our shared interest in a region which is stable, prosperous and respectful of sovereignty. I am keen to hear from leaders about how we can work together to tackle the climate crisis, strengthen our economies post-pandemic, and achieve our shared interests in a peaceful and secure region,” she said as she prepared for her visit.

Shaky Forum

This Reporter was a part of media delegation that accompanied Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to the Forum Summit held in Suva in July last year.

The signs of disappointment and discord were visible.

The Prime Ministers of Australia and New Zealand said that the region is the risk of militarisation with China expanding its influence and the Forum on shaky ground.

The Leaders must reinforce the Forum’s 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent, which strikes an urgent tone on climate change and repeatedly calls for accelerated and drastic action to reduce emissions.

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