Pacific leaders and their delegations are starting to arrive in Rarotonga for the annual heads of government meeting - the Pacific Islands Forum.
Forum chair and Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown said this year’s meeting will be led by Pacific leaders, not superpowers like the United States and its allies such as the United Kingdom, and China swooping in on the action.
In previous years, Brown said, all the political oxygen had been sucked out by the US, noting former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to the last meeting in the Cook Islands in 2012.
“When Hillary [Clinton] turned up the whole focus, all of the oxygen that we had generated as a Pacific region was sucked up by the USA,” he said.
This year, it is another full agenda. Climate change, economic recovery, regional security and fisheries are some of the big-ticket items for Pacific Islands leaders.
Australia is coming in hot this year with a 70-strong delegation. RNZ Pacific can confirm Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is attending.
Albanese is currently in Beijing - the first visit by an Australian leader to China in seven years - and is expected to land in Rarotonga on Tuesday, local time.
Australia’s climate action
A former Papua New Guinea politician and a former Forum secretary-general, Dame Meg Taylor, who is now part of the Pacific Elders Voice - a group of former heads of states and diplomats - told RNZ Pacific that Australia has a lot of work to do on the climate front.
“The issue [is] that Australia continues to produce coal and gas. And just what is going to be done about it?” Taylor said.
Australia’s joint bid to host a UN climate change conference - Cop31 - in 2026 with the Pacific, which some Pacific leaders are supportive of, will be a discussion point.
“The Pacific Elders are just a bit more wary of how it’s going to be done,” Taylor said.
“I personally think that if Australia wants to host, Australia should host. But for Australia to host with the Pacific, to what purpose? That’s my question, when we have very different points of views about the climate issue.”
She said the issue of nations tackling fossil fuels is one the Elders continue to focus on.
“Loss and damage, and also on fossil fuels, and countries within our region that are contributing to that,” Taylor said.
“Now, even my own country [Papua New Guinea] contributes to the fuel industry with our grid production of natural gas. But we too are looking very much at how we decarbonise that.”
The list of leaders who have already arrived includes Niue Premier Dalton Tagelagi, French Polynesia President Moetai Brotherson, Palau President Surangel Whipps Jr, Tuvalu Prime Minister Kausea Natano and Tonga Prime Minister Hu’akavemeiliku Siaosi Sovaleni.
New Vanuatu Prime Minister Charlot Salwai will be in attendance as well as his nation recovers from category 5 Cyclone Lola.
New Nauru President David Adeang will be at the meeting, and RNZ Pacific understands the controversial figure in line to next lead the Pacific Islands Forum, former Nauru president Baron Waqa, is also attending.
Absent will be Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, due to the upcoming Pacific Games being hosted in Honiara.
As it stands, Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister James Marape will also be missing, sending Justin Tkatchenko instead, who earlier this year called critics of his daughter’s TikTok at the King of England’s coronation “primitive animals”.
New Zealand’s outgoing Deputy Prime Minister in the caretaker Government, Carmel Sepuloni, and Gerry Brownlee from the incoming National Party-led Government, will attend for Aotearoa, with the final election results only just coming in last Friday, local time.
Representatives from Cuba, Ghana, Norway, Turkey, India, Germany, Singapore, Portugal, Philippines and Japan are also expected.
As confirmation of high-level delegations come in, those who are already in Rarotonga are setting the scene for a meeting where Pacific leaders are not overshadowed.
“Our region is different. The challenges are more complex, and the strategic interest in our region is at an all-time high,” Forum secretary-general Henry Puna said.
‘Opportunities to lift the prosperity’ - Brown
The theme of this year’s Forum is “Our voices, our choices, our Pacific way”.
While tit for tats play out in the media and the focus zooms in on the region, “what they call geopolitical interests in our region and the perceived influence of the US to combat the influence of China”, the world missed the Pacific’s voice, Brown said.
“They’re not hearing what Pacific voices are saying,” he said.
“We are here trying to look at opportunities to lift the prosperity levels of our people to address serious concerns around financing, to improve infrastructure around investment, to provide opportunities for our people to participate in a growing economy.”
He said “the assumption that maybe Pacific Island countries don’t know what they are doing is starting to sound very insulting and getting to the stage of being offensive in some cases”.
“So, when we talk about this theme of ours for this year, it is a very, very pertinent theme.
“It’s climate security. It is economic security. It is the security of our people who live under the threat of climate change.”
Brown is prioritising national security, climate security and economic security to lift the Pacific region.