Forum poses climate and security as central concerns

By Islands Business correspondent Nic Maclellan, at the Pacific Islands Forum in Nauru

Pacific leaders face a growing and complex agenda, in the era of Trump, Brexit and rising Chinese economic power. That may explain why the 2018 Pacific Islands Forum leaders retreat continued for hours beyond its scheduled time.

It was already dark when Forum leaders arrived in the district of Boe in host nation Nauru, for the ceremony to sign a new regional security declaration, dubbed the Boe Declaration.

The statement is one of the key outcomes of the annual meeting of 18 Forum members. It “builds on and complements the 2000 Biketawa Declaration, and responds to the region’s complex and evolving regional security environment.”

When the leaders arrived for the signing ceremony after lengthy discussions in the retreat, young Nauruan children danced and water jets shot into the sky. Forum host President Baron Waqa of Nauru launched the declaration and – Hollywood style – leaders pressed their right hand into concrete, to leave a lasting reminder of their time at the Forum.

The Boe Declaration looks to an “expanded concept of security inclusive of human security, humanitarian assistance, prioritising environmental security and regional cooperation in building resilience to disasters and climate change, including through regional cooperation and support.”

A crucial provision notes that all leaders “reaffirm that climate change remains the single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and wellbeing of the peoples of the Pacific and our commitment to progress the implementation of the Paris Agreement.”

As she left Nauru soon after the launching of the Boe Declaration, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne acknowledged the issue of climate change, but went on to highlight the more traditional security agenda around emerging transnational threats, maritime surveillance and law enforcement. 

“All of the participants in the Forum, all of those that have signed the Declaration, understand that climate change is a priority issue for the Pacific particularly,” she said.

“As well as issues that relate to climate change, we also discussed at great length issues around regional security that are more transnational crime, as I’ve mentioned and the work of the Pacific Maritime Security Programme (PMSP). Transnational crime can manifest itself in many ways and they are emerging security threats. It also mentions especially cyber-security – a key for the safety and integrity of nations.”

Joined by officials of the Forum Fisheries Agency, Payne and Prime Minister Henry Puna of the Cook Islands unveiled one of two new aircraft for aerial surveillance of Pacific maritime zones, funded by Australia. She also announced funding for a $17.7 million Pacific Fusion Centre, “to share information in relation to threats, in relation to operational activities of their own law enforcement agencies or their patrol activities. So we are working as closely together as possible to identify and defeat these criminal challenges.”

The Forum Secretariat must now develop an action plan by November to implement the regional security declaration. This will likely be an interesting battle. Will major development partners shift a greater proportion of their development aid, technical assistance and security programmes to address climate change as the single greatest threat to Forum island countries?

In their communique, Forum members stressed the need for “immediate urgent action to combat climate change” and endorsed the concept of establishing a Pacific Resilience Facility (PRF). With one exception, the Forum leaders fully endorsed the Summary of Decisions of the 28th Smaller Island States Leaders Meeting, held earlier in the week (see accompanying story).

The Forum called on countries, particularly large emitters, to “fully implement their Nationally Determined Contribution mitigation targets, including through the development and transfer of renewable energy, in line with committed timeframes.”

The regional organisation will now seek further action from the United Nations, asking the UN Secretary General to appoint a Special Adviser on climate change and security, and the UN Security Council to appoint a special rapporteur to produce a regular review of global, regional and national security threats caused by climate change.

Bad behaviour – China, Taiwan, the United States

During the week, a large delegation from the United States attended the Forum, led by the Trump Administration’s Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke. The United States hosted a breakfast meeting with Forum leaders, but it seems there was no meeting of minds on the issue of climate change.

The communique states that “Leaders of Forum Island Countries called on the United States to return to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change” (Interesting wording! Did Australia and New Zealand decline to join their island counterparts in this call?) 

Secretary Zinke, a former US Navy SEAL, affirmed the US engagement in the broad Indo-Pacific theatre: “It’s our position that the United States is not a dominating force, we’re a partner….Our message is that the United States is here, we have always been here and our focus more recently has been towards the Pacific.”

This commitment to the region, however, is undercut by the actions of the Trump administration, such as the decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and the refusal to commit the remaining US$2 billion of the 2014 US pledge to the Green Climate Fund. The recent announcement that President Trump will not attend this November’s APEC summit in Port Moresby – a key regional initiative – is another signal. Despite the likely presence of US Vice President Mike Pence, it leaves the way open for an official visit to Papua New Guinea by Chinese President Xi Jingping, who will participate in a summit for island leaders in the lead up to APEC.

Chinese diplomacy, however, took a hit this week by the unprecedented behaviour of a Chinese official during the official Forum dialogue session. The Chinese delegate demanded the right to speak in preference to Tuvalu Prime Minister Sopoaga, challenged the session chair over procedure and eventually stormed from the room.

As reported earlier this week, the incident is tied to the broader tussle for hearts and minds in the region between Taiwan and China. There was also a dispute over visas for the Chinese delegation to come to Nauru, which is one of six Pacific island states aligned with Taiwan rather than the People’s Republic.

Forum host Baron Waqa said that he would demand a formal apology from China over the incident, and was clearly angry at the conduct shown in the dialogue session.

“Disrespecting the Pacific, the Forum island leaders and other ministers who have come to join us in the Pacific, in our territory, in our little corner of the world! Look, he’s a nobody, he’s not even a minister. Never mind that they are our partners, they should not disrespect us. There are protocols to be respected.”

Islands Business approached the Chinese delegation for a response, but they declined to comment.

Creating space to talk

This incident highlights a broader problem. As more and more global players look to the islands region to search for resources or promote their strategic interests, they bring their agendas into the annual Forum meeting. This can crowd out the priorities of Pacific island countries and clash with local ways of working.

The size of the annual meeting, with numerous side events, bilateral consultations and press conferences also places pressure on the leaders and key Forum staff, as they rush from meeting to meeting. After the Smaller Island States meeting this week, SIS leaders formally noted the “increasing complexities of the geopolitical environment as well as the increasing interest of traditional and non-traditional partners in the Blue Pacific and called for the need to be provided the space and time to be able to discuss issues and priorities of shared importance.”

On Tuesday evening, President Waqa exploded at the media for their supposed fixation on asylum seekers and refugees in Nauru, rather than the broader Forum agenda. It came at the end of a very long day where he’d had the United States intransigence for breakfast, Chinese rudeness for morning tea and the detention by Nauru police of a New Zealand journalist for afternoon tea. At the press conference, as journalists argued for the rights of Pacific media workers and the issue of refugees as a regional concern, we were clearly keeping him from his dinner!

These problems may lead to changes in the structure of the meeting, such as the idea of shifting the Forum Dialogue Partners meeting to the new Forum Foreign Ministers Meeting. In the final communique, the Forum Secretariat was directed to “work with the Forum Troika (Samoa, Nauru and Tuvalu) to review the guidelines and format of the Pacific Islands Forum Meetings” and report back to leaders.

The Forum communique also outlined a new schedule of increased member financial contributions, to ensure the Secretariat can keep pace with its growing agenda, but also slowly increase the independence of decision making from donor pressure.

Broader agenda

The oceans agenda was central to the week’s activities, with presentations by the Office of the Pacific Oceans Commissioner, proposals for an annual Regional Fisheries Ministers meeting and a communique provision calling for “securing the region’s maritime boundaries as a key issue for the development and security of our region.”

Community health and development also raised concern, with an increasing incidence of childhood obesity in the region. Leaders met with NGOs to discuss programmes for sport and development and “expressed their grave concern with the increasing incidence of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), noting that NCDs now represents the leading cause of premature deaths in our region.”

As France seeks to improve its regional relationship, another French Pacific dependency upgraded its status within the organisation. Following the 2016 decision to include French Polynesia and New Caledonia as full Forum members, this meeting endorsed the admission of Wallis and Futuna as an Associate Member (the small Polynesia territory has been a Forum observer since 2006). 

New Caledonia will hold a referendum on self-determination on 4 November, but the issue was not high on this week’s programme – a fundamental change from past decades, when the Kanak independence struggle, French colonialism and nuclear testing dominated the regional agenda. Now, France is an increasingly significant partner – especially on climate change – and the Forum welcomed an invitation from Paris for a Forum Ministerial Committee Mission to monitor the New Caledonia referendum, under the auspices of the United Nations.

Tuvalu will host next year’s Forum leaders meeting, followed by Vanuatu in 2020 (the 40th anniversary of the Melanesian nation’s accession to independence in 1980).