The Pacific Summit begins in the middle of the battle between the United States and China for influence Poverty and development

Sydney, Australia – The summit of the 51st Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), which takes place this week in Fiji, looks set to be the most important regional summit in many years.

The COVID-19 pandemic, climate change and rivalry between the United States and China have ravaged the strategic region in the years since leaders last met in person in 2019.

Nevertheless, several parties are conspicuously absent from the event.

Kiribati, a nation of 33 islands about halfway between Australia and Hawaii, announced on Sunday that it had withdrawn from the PIF again due to a split stemming from a controversial leadership transition that allegedly put Micronesian nations on the sidelines. Kiribati and four other Micronesian states had threatened to withdraw last year, but “Micronexit” was averted after an agreement was reached to keep the bloc on board early last month.

The forum, which includes 16 small island nations along with Australia and New Zealand, also violates the convention and postpones the personal dialogue partners’ ministerial meeting, a gathering of representatives from its 21 external partners, including the United States and China, which usually coincides with the summit. Keeping partner countries in check potentially gives Pacific nations more respite to focus on internal affairs as the outside world becomes increasingly involved in their region.

“It’s a good decision in my opinion,” Robert Bohn, a former Vanuatu lawmaker who now serves as an adviser to the Secretary of State, told Al Jazeera.

“We need to get our house in order before we talk to the rest of the world. We need to restore consensus with each other as we enter the post-COVID era. “

A strip of land between the Pacific Ocean and a lagoon in Funafuti, Tuvalu.
The management meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum will this week launch its 2050 strategy for the blue Pacific continent [File: Mario Tama/Getty Images]

The forum aims to break ground on a myriad of issues, ranging from climate change to security and connectivity, as part of its new vision for regional development – the 2050 strategy for the blue Pacific continent.

“It is about taking control of our economic sovereignty,” Zarak Khan, the PIF Secretariat’s Director of Programs and Initiatives in Fiji, told Al Jazeera.

«The 2050 strategy is our north star. It is about securing our region’s prospects, people and space. It is also about investing in scientific research, information technology, e-commerce and education to realize the potential of our young population. We will do this by leveraging sustainable finance to build a knowledge economy that complements the blue economy. “

Although the strategy is scheduled to be launched this week, some executives say the process is still far from complete.

“Our own position is still a bit unclear when it comes to that,” said Bohn of Vanuatu’s position on the initiative.

“I do not hear a well-worded answer on exactly how the strategy will be implemented, and I do not think other neighbors are much further along than us.”

Bohn said that while developed countries prefer to see the region adopt a single strategy, it is not clear whether Pacific countries are ready for a unified approach.

“There is quite a lot of work to be done to come up with a strategy that works,” he said, adding that the varying conditions across the region make a “one-size fits all solution” difficult to understand.

Khan said the 2050 vision would not be implemented all at once.

“It will be a springboard to get there. The Pacific draws inspiration from development models from Asia, such as Singapore, which used incremental five-year plans to achieve long-term goals, Khan said.

“After Thursday’s launch, we will enter the implementation plan phase, which will see new meetings in September and October where we will discuss city council delegation, resource allocation, identify specific goals and introduce enabling action plans that will be completed by that time.”

The recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic will be high on the agenda of the 51st PIF Executive Meeting [File: Mario Tama/Getty Images]

Overcoming the persistent effects of the pandemic on the region will be among the most important items on the agenda.

“Pacific islands are still extremely vulnerable to the health and economic effects of the pandemic,” Melissa Conley Tyler, program manager at AP4D, a Canberra-based think tank, told Al Jazeera.

“For example, in addition to the immediate impact on tourism, the closure of schools for long periods during the pandemic has had enormous long-term effects on education.”

Conley Tyler said Pacific leaders are concerned about the potential for a “lost decade”, or even a lost generation, due to the pandemic.

“The day-to-day struggles for access to basic services – such as health care, education, financial services, markets and revenue generation opportunities – present fundamental challenges,” she said.

The “blue economy” – a broad term describing approaches to sustainable maritime economic activity – is expected to play a prominent role in the forthcoming strategy.

Khan said that the Pacific countries have much to teach the world about sustainable fishing practices, which can be done through consultations with institutional partners in the 2050 strategy.

Bohn said Vanuatu, an archipelago of about 320,000 people located about 800 km west of Fiji, is reorganizing bureaucracy for the first time in decades to focus better on the blue economy. The new Ministry of Fisheries, Maritime Affairs and Maritime Affairs is expected to be established by the end of the year.

“We are focusing on the blue economy, but we are also becoming green, and are increasingly expected to meet the same standards as developed countries, which presents another challenge,” Bohn said.

“So we wonder how developed countries are going to approach climate change and what comes in the form of concrete aid. We have to buy new environmentally friendly vessels, for example, but where are the funds for that?”

Khan said that sustainable financing will be crucial to ensure that small island states are not overburdened with debt.

“There have been cases where small Pacific states were prematurely graduated from Least Developed Country (LDC) status, which kicked the development aid ladder under their feet.”

Climate finance is a concern shared by political experts in Australia, who are not only a PIF member but also the region’s largest foreign donor.

“I hope one of the things on the agenda is how Australia can support the Pacific’s international leadership and diplomacy on climate action,” said Conley Tyler.

“Australia has changed its declarative climate policy, confirming that climate change is the biggest threat to the Pacific region,” she added.

“Australia must join the Pacific on meaningful collective diplomacy on climate change. Australia has raised the possibility of hosting a conference for the parties [COP] meeting with Pacific Island, and I hope this is something that is discussed at the summit. “

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi will hold a virtual meeting with 10 Pacific Island colleagues on Thursday [File: Vaitogi Asuisui Matafeo/AFP]

Australia has not been alone in proposing avenues for dialogue. While Pacific leaders have sought to pause geopolitical maneuvering between the United States, its allies and China, major powers continue to hunt for influence.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi is trying to make his presence felt by holding a virtual meeting with 10 Pacific Island colleagues on Thursday – the last day of the forum. The meeting comes after China in May failed to convince leaders to sign a security pact that would have increased its influence in the region.

“We are in a hurry to get ready for the summit without unnecessary outside interference,” Bohn said. “There is a risk that the meeting will distract from the summit itself, but there is also a danger here for China.”

“They will be careful to make demands that island nations will not tolerate. Pacific Islanders do not like to be pushed too hard. “

The United States, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Japan recently launched the Partners in the Blue Pacific (PBP) initiative to promote “more effective and efficient cooperation in support of Pacific Island priorities”.

Nevertheless, there has been criticism from some researchers in Pacific studies that the PBP nations “cooperate” with the Blue Pacific narrative and “undermine” the Pacific’s own established principles for its own geopolitical goals.

“They have to be careful how they approach it,” Bohn said.

“My advice to these five countries would be: do not let your reaction to China’s involvement make you react in a way that is not acceptable to the island nations either. I hope all parties can slow down and listen to the island nations themselves. “

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