Don’t capitulate to foreign interests, Puna tells Foreign Ministers

Pacific Islands Forum Secretary-General Henry Puna. Photo: PIFS

The Secretary-General of the Pacific Islands Forum has sounded a strongly worded call for greater regionalism in the Pacific by urging Foreign Ministers of the 18-member Forum meeting in Fiji today, not to capitulate to external interests.

Henry Puna made the comments in brief remarks at the end of the opening session of the one-day meeting of Foreign Ministers in Suva today, ahead of the meeting of Forum leaders in the Cook Islands in November.

In obvious reference to the region being caught in the middle of China’s growing push for Pacific dominance and the subsequent counter-resurgence by the United States, Puna told the Foreign Ministers that strategic interest in the region is at an all time high, but that it is “an opportunity that will not last forever”.

“As a Forum family, we have withstood many challenges and changes and capitalised on opportunities over the last 53 years. But, as one of our senior officials quite aptly pointed out this week, this era is the Pacific’s Century. Let us not capitulate to external interests in our region, but rather let us define and drive our own priorities in the best interests of our people,” Puna said.

In recent times, China has extensively courted Solomon Islands, a key geopolitical line of defence in the South Pacific, while Fijian Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka has given his nod of assent to Japan’s discharge of recycled waste from the Fukushima nuclear plant into the Pacific Ocean, sparking a major public outcry in Fiji.

The Fukushima issue is on the agenda of today’s meeting.

Delivering the opening address, Forum chair and Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown, said it was important to remember that for Pacific regionalism to work, “we must be willing to work together to find common ground that positively contributes to the [Forum] leaders’ vision. We must all be prepared to exercise some flexibility to be prepared to adjust for the future prosperity of the Blue Pacific”.

Referring to meetings he was attending in his capacity as current Forum chair, of the G7 summit in Hiroshima in May, the ASEAN leaders’ summit in Jakarta last week, an upcoming meeting with United States President Joe Biden and the United Nations General Assembly next week, Brown said “the strategic opportunities before us are great. The onus is on us to step up and grasp it. How we strategically engage as a region is of utmost importance”.

“It is timely that with the ongoing regional processes, we will be able to find new and innovative ways to maximise the value of regionalism.”

Top of the agenda at today’s meeting is the five-year implementation plan of the Forum’s 2050 Strategy. The plan is scheduled for endorsement by Forum Leaders when they meet in November.

The strategy reinforces commitment and working together as a collective for advancing Pacific regionalism based on the Blue Pacific Narrative.

“The implementation plan is a critical cog in the machinery to deliver the 2050 Strategy and as tasked by leaders, will shortly be accompanied by a review of the regional architecture,” said Brown.

“So, we have a strategy. We are on the cusp of endorsing a plan. And we will shortly embark on a journey to deliver the architecture … our regional team to deliver the 2050 strategy and implementation plan.”