Pacific islands demand climate action as China, US woo region

Small island nations call for more action on climate change while pledging unity amid growing geopolitical competition.

A strip of land between a lagoon and the Pacific Ocean in Tuvalu.
Pacific island nations have told the United States and China to take more action on climate change while pledging unity in the face of a growing geopolitical contest [File: Mario Tama/Getty Images]

Pacific island nations, courted by China and the United States, put the superpowers on notice, telling the world’s two biggest carbon emitters to take more action on climate change while pledging unity in the face of a growing geopolitical contest.

Leaders at a four-day summit of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), meeting in Fiji’s capital Suva, bristled at a Chinese attempt to split some of the nations off into a trade and security agreement, while Washington pledged more financial and diplomatic engagement.

The exclusive economic zones of the 17 forum members span 30 million sq km (11.6 million sq miles) of ocean – providing half the world’s tuna, the most-eaten fish. The nations are also feeling some of the severest effects of climate change as rising seas inundate lower-lying areas.

At the PIF summit that ended on Thursday, leaders adopted language several members have used in declaring a climate emergency, saying this was supported not only by science but by people’s daily lives in the Pacific.

A communique, yet to be released, shows the nations focused on the next United Nations climate conference, COP27. They will push for a doubling of climate finance to flow from big emitters to developing nations within two years, money they say is needed to adapt to rising sea levels and worsening storms.

The communique, seen by the Reuters news agency, also calls for meaningful progress at COP27 on financing for the “loss and damage” to vulnerable societies that cannot adapt and will need to relocate communities – a battle lost at last year’s global climate talks.

“What matters most to us is we secure bold commitments from all countries at COP27 to phase out coal and other fossil fuels and step up finance to the most vulnerable nations and advance causes like ‘loss and damage’ that matter dearly to the most at-risk island communities,” Fiji’s President Frank Bainimarama told reporters.

“We simply cannot settle for any less than the survival of every Pacific island country,” said Bainimarama, the forum’s chairman.

Fijian President Frank Bainimarama speaking at a podium.
Fijian President Frank Bainimarama has called for bold commitments to phase out coal and other fossil fuels [File: Kirsty Needham/Reuters]

Tuvalu’s Foreign Minister Simon Kofe, who literally made waves at the last global climate conference by standing knee-deep in seawater to show what his country faces, told Reuters: “There is technology available to protect the islands and raise the islands and that is what we are seeking. It is very costly.”

As the Pacific summit was ending, Australian coal-mining stocks soared on expectations China could resume imports after a two-year political dispute halted coal shipments to the world’s biggest coal burner from its second-biggest exporter.

In contrast to the market’s bullishness, leaders in the forum’s thatched-roof headquarters discussed how to deal with the statehood of people whose nation has sunk in rising seas, or rights to fishing grounds defined by their distance from a landmass that may disappear.

The communique cites an urgent need for assistance on debt vulnerability and the rising cost of food amid the pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

In a video address to the forum, US Vice President Kamala Harris pledged to triple funding to Pacific islands over a decade under a fisheries treaty, and open more embassies.

Pacific leaders at times showed irritation at the global focus on the contest between the Washington and Beijing over their region.

Australia, in tune, said less about security and pledged greater support for the climate change agenda of its neighbours, although maritime surveillance announcements to protect sustainable fishing hinted at its core anxiety.

“It’s harder for countries that are responsible for most of the illegal fishing then to argue they are going to support the region to stop illegal fishing,” Australia’s Pacific Minister Pat Conroy said in an interview, referring to China.

Economic ties to China

Australian officials privately say they do not want security choices in the region driven by economic ties to China, and although Pacific islands are sophisticated actors, they need funding support because many have historical debts to Beijing.

Fiji, for example, has taken no loans from China since 2012 but continues to service export-import bank loans for Chinese infrastructure projects that will cost the government 40 million Fijian dollars ($18m) this year, budget documents show.

Australian Strategic Policy Institute analyst Michael Shoebridge said Beijing has a record of “splintering regionalism”, drawing a parallel between its recent Pacific diplomacy and a platform it created a decade ago to engage with European countries and bypass the European Union.

Some leaders said in interviews that China provided economic opportunities that small island economies could not ignore, although they agreed to work through the forum to stay unified in their response to great power competition, particularly on security, after disquiet that Beijing struck a security deal in April with the Solomon Islands.

The forum’s secretary-general openly criticised China’s bid to have about half the forum members sign a deal on trade and security in May that would exclude members with ties to Taiwan and exclude Australia and New Zealand. Leaders at the summit said it had been rushed without consultation.

China’s embassy in Fiji responded on Twitter on Saturday, saying Beijing had prepared and presented the outcome document to Pacific islands a month ahead of a meeting of foreign ministers. Beijing has created a new platform for cooperation with Pacific island countries through an annual meeting with its foreign minister, it said.

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation