Unity, Re-Engagement with US Focus of Pacific Islands Regional Forum

2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific endorsed at Forum . . . 

On the final day of this week’s Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) meeting, held in Fiji, leaders from across the region endorsed the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent, a multi-pronged approach to priority issues for Pacific countries, including climate change mitigation, governance, security, and economic development. The strategy, developed through national and regional consultation, is considered a significant step toward articulating shared priorities and developing policy and partnerships. The other major highlight of the PIF meeting was the announcement by U.S. Vice-President Kamala Harris, via video address, of significant U.S. re-engagement with the region. Harris said the U.S. would triple its support to the Pacific region to US$60 million annually for 10 years and that it would establish new embassies in Tonga and Kiribati. Increased funding will require approval by Congress.

Unity or infighting?

The theme of unity presented in the ‘Blue Pacific’ strategy, however, looked fractured even before the PIF meeting began as Kiribati confirmed it was leaving the Forum. The move stems from disagreements over the election of the PIF’s Secretary-General in February 2021, although the rift appeared to have been healed last month with the announcement that a candidate from Micronesia – the Pacific sub-region consisting of the Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Palau, Nauru, and the Federated States of Micronesia – would take up the position in 2024. But Kiribati pressed on with its departure in what its President described as “a matter of principle.”

Pacific geopolitics . . .

The US Vice-President’s announcements should be interpreted as a direct response to China’s attempts to increase its influence across the Pacific region. In addition to securing a wide-ranging agreement with Solomon Islands, which the U.S., Australia, and other allies fear will lead to a Chinese military base in the Pacific, Beijing upped its diplomatic engagement with a 10-day push across the region by Foreign Minister Wang Yi earlier this year. The effort – which resulted in a slew of bilateral pacts but not the Pacific-wide agreement that Beijing had intended – was followed by an audacious yet unsuccessful overture by Beijing to hold a China-Pacific foreign ministers meeting during the PIF. Beijing’s influence in the Pacific has been growing for years, while that of the U.S. has been declining. Indeed, the former President of Kiribati believes his country’s decision to leave the PIF is rooted in its relationship with China.