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‘Forum Family’ to convene in Suva for the 51st leaders’ meeting

Friday 8 July 2022 | Written by RNZ | Published in Pacific Islands, Regional


‘Forum Family’ to convene in Suva for the 51st leaders’ meeting
Photo: RNZ Pacific

Fiji is set to host the 51st Forum Leaders Meeting (PIF51) scheduled to take place in the capital, Suva, from 11 to 14 July.

Pacific leaders from 18 member countries, including Australia and New Zealand, will gather face-to face for the first time since 2019 to discuss a basket of issues affecting the region.

The meeting, hosted by the Fijian government, is billed as one of the most significant in recent history as the region gradually emerges from the grips of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Fijian government sees the convening as "an opportunity to strengthen relationships and reset goals and priorities for regionalism and collective action as a Forum Family".

For the forum's chair, Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, the occasion "is an opportunity to celebrate 50 years of Pacific regionalism through the Pacific Islands Forum and to reflect on and honour what it means to work together towards shared aspirations and objectives".

The meeting in Suva is expected to conclude with the launch of the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent, which according to the Forum Secretariat, has been developed over three years after wide consultation across the region.

The 2050 strategy, once endorsed, will become the blueprint that will set out the collective vision for the region.

The central issues

On Friday, the forum foreign ministers met during a high-level meeting in Suva to discuss regional priorities and set the scene for high-level talanoa on Pacific Forum priorities next week.

Several issues will be on the table, including geopolitical tensions, the climate crisis, mending the PIF leadership rift, Covid-19 recovery, and discussions on the regional nuclear legacy, among others. But the two expected to take centre stage are the intensifying geopolitical competition and the impacts of climate change.

While the climate crisis remains the number one security issue for forum leaders, they recognise the increasing interests from major powers - in China and the United States and its allies, including Australia, all of whom are contesting for greater influence in the Blue Pacific.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama.
China Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama. Photo: Fiji Government

China, in particular, has received much attention recently after its foreign minister, Wang Yi, made a whirlwind tour in an attempt to convince Pacific nations which it has bilateral relations with to sign up to the "China-Pacific Island Countries Common Vision" multilateral agreement.

Wang's visit came on the back of news that Beijing had formalised a security deal with Solomon Islands, sending regional leaders and political watchers into panic.

In the end, there was a push back and China's multilateral agreement failed to receive the backing of the Pacific leaders.

From the forum's point of view, it was a win as its position appears to be clear on China's ambitions to establish a new regional political architecture.

It is against any plans from China to get Pacific countries to sign up to a new multilateral deal because it will diminish the role of the Pacific Island Forum.

Secretary-general Henry Puna said during a pre-forum officials' committee meeting in June, the "fierce geostrategic competition … has catapulted our region to the centre of global attention in 2022".

"We, as a region, have never held as much leverage and influence as we perhaps do, today," Puna said.

"However, if we are to truly maximise our leverage to this increasing interest and attention on us, we must protect the sanctity of our solidarity as the Blue Pacific Continent. As one Pacific Forum Family."

Protecting the ocean

Safeguarding the Pacific Ocean from present and emerging threats will be another issue at PIF51.

The ocean plays a vital part in the livelihoods and identity of the Pacific peoples.

"There is no secret that our key strength as a region lies in our ocean and its resources," Puna said.

"How we secure it, protect it, leverage and benefit from it through regional political settlements, as well as regulatory, policy and legal instruments, will be core to the success of our 2050 Strategy."

Mending the leadership rift

Last year, the appointment of Puna to head the PIF almost brought down the regional institution.

The leaders of the Micronesian subregion were unhappy about the decision and threatened to exit the forum completely if major reforms were not undertaken.

But in early June 2022, the biggest crisis in the forum's 50 years was sorted when three Micronesia leaders were flown to Fiji for a face-to-face meeting with Bainimarama to mend the leadership rift.

The leaders present at the June gathering endorsed the Suva Agreement that would set out the appointment procedures of the secretary-general as well as address others raised by the Micronesian bloc.

This will be a major part of the discussions next week.

Vanuatu's ICJAO bid

Vanuatu's government will also be seeking the full endorsement of the Forum Leaders for its bid to seek an advisory option from the International Court of Justice (ICJAO) on climate change.

The initiative has already received the backing of more than 1500 civil society groups in 130 countries.

Civil society groups are already planning a major action in Suva on Saturday, 9 July to call on forum leaders to vote on and endorse Vanuatu's ICJAO bid.

Other talking points will include Australia's role in doing more for climate action with newly elected Prime Minister Anthony Albanese confirmed to attend the PIF51 and a large contingent of the Australian news media expected to be present in Suva.

Forum's role is 'critical', Ardern says

Ahead of the meeting, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the role of the Pacific Islands Forum is "critical in resolving regional problems and local security issues should be resolved locally".

"New Zealand is committed to the Pacific Islands Forum as the vehicle for addressing regional challenges," Ardern said in a speech to the Lowy Institute think tank in Australia on Thursday. New Zealand is poised to stay balanced during the forum, Ardern said.

"We can be country neutral in approach, but have a Pacific bias on the values we apply for these engagements. But priorities should be set by the Pacific. They should be free from coercion."

With more than 50 members of the international media arriving already in Suva today and more to follow in the days ahead, the eyes of the world will be on this most contentious of Pacific leaders' meetings.