Island states should not be ‘forced to choose a side’ – and national security must begin with climate change, foreign minister Simon Kofe tells Toby Manhire.
Simon Kofe made a splash at the Glasgow climate change conference. In a recorded video, the foreign minister from Tuvalu addressed delegates at Cop26 in November last year. Speaking with the usual accoutrements of flags, a podium and a blue backdrop, he said: “I do not take for granted this opportunity to speak to you as you discuss the fate of the world and the fate of small island states including those in the beautiful Pacific region. In Tuvalu our islands are sacred to us. They contain the mana of our people. They were the home of our ancestors. They are the home of our people today. And we want them to remain the home of our people into the future.”
His message, “from our eight islands and our 12,000 people to the international community”, gathered urgency, towards his conclusion. “We must take bold alternative action today, to secure tomorrow,” he said, as the camera soared backwards aboard a drone, revealing Kofe standing thigh deep in water, the podium, flags and pretence of generic studio submerged around him.
The video was recorded off the tip of Tuvalu’s principal atoll, Funafuti, a fingernail of land where it takes 10 minutes to walk the widest stretch from west to east. From a land that has become an unwilling poster child for the perils of climate change, the images cut through the conference blur of good intentions, reaching a global audience. Six months on, as international attention turns to the Pacific for different reasons, how optimistic is Kofe feeling? “Every day, we see the sea encroach more and more or a tropical cyclone hit harder or a drought last longer,” he told The Spinoff. “I am fearful that those with more money and resources will drown us out and misrepresent us only to continue their destruction of the planet. But I am also extremely hopeful because I see powerful leaders from small states like my own coming to the fore.”
Kofe, who was earlier this year nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, welcomed the attention his speech attracted, but pointed also to leaders in other small island nations making waves, such as Mia Mottley, prime minister of Barbados. States such as theirs “can command so much power in this era”, he said. “We can use our creative, collective and, often, virtual voices to stop those who would do nothing about the climate crisis … and bring climate change to the forefront of global attention.”
The minister welcomed, too, signs that Australia is taking climate change more seriously. “The recent Australian elections have brought in a government much more sympathetic to our cause, and I hope to see other major emitters take the same turn,” he said.
Climate change and national security
Recent months have seen a spate of headlines about the island states of the Pacific and their relationships with China, the US, Australia and New Zealand. A security pact between China and the Solomon Islands, swiftly followed by a whistle-stop eight-nation, 10-day tour of the region by China’s foreign minister, has prompted alarm in some quarters. A joint statement signed by US president Joe Biden and New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern criticising “China’s Pacific ambitions” prompted a furious response from Beijing.
For Kofe, a senior politician in a land deemed by the UN to be “extremely vulnerable to the adverse impacts of climate change, variability and extreme weather”, any discussion around national security and the region must begin with global heating – “the single greatest security threat the Pacific faces”. He said: “I feel that we have to deal with security issues in our region with the necessary perspective, and as a region we must always realise the importance of maintaining climate change as our primary security concern.”
Asked whether Tuvalu – which recognises Taiwan rather than China – has concerns over those “Pacific ambitions” from Beijing, Kofe invoked the Tuvaluan principles of fale-pili, or neighbourliness, and kaitasi, or shared responsibility and ownership. Those concepts pervaded their foreign policy, too. “We believe that all nations have a responsibility to improve our global wellbeing,” said Kofe. “I see Tuvalu’s place in the current geopolitical climate as a party that stresses the possibility for harmony and unity between all sides. Instead of looking at the US and its western allies and China as vying with each other, we should look for ways to bring all parties together against our common enemy: climate change. We have to create real partners who will stand with us to preserve our very existence.”
He was similarly diplomatic on the Solomons security deal. “We respect the sovereignty of our partner the Solomon Islands, and we will express any concerns we may have regarding the security agreement directly with Solomon Islands in the Pacific way,” he said, adding that “we also respect those who have concerns about the security pact”.
What is critical, said Kofe, is the Pacific nations sticking together and finding solutions (an example of which was found this week in the resolution of a dispute over the Pacific Islands Forum leadership). “The last thing we want is for our nations to be used against each other or as pawns,” he said. “Unless there is consensus among our Pacific family, I feel that we should not be forced to choose a ‘side’ in a geopolitical fight that is not of our own creation. I simply do not find this a productive way to view regional issues when Pacific cultures are based on ideas of unity and consensus.”
Some of the coverage of the interests of China and the US and their allies, in which the Pacific Islands are framed as a theatre of conflict, is “degrading to Pacific Island nations”, said Kofe. “It often focuses on ‘superpowers’ and their struggles or conflicts, and disregards the voices of Pacific countries, their leaders and their peoples.”
Nor was the dynamic as new as some made it out to be. “These so-called superpowers have always focused on the Pacific. We have seen countries focusing on the Pacific for its phosphate resources, as a nuclear testing ground, and for its fisheries since World War II and before,” said Kofe. “I think there has not really been enough sustained attention to the Pacific on the part of the mainstream media and the general public throughout the world, and this has led to the impression that ‘superpower’ interest in the Pacific is new or that it is an interest or phenomenon that Pacific nations cannot deal with or do not understand. In reality, we have been seeking Pacific solutions to the positive and negative interests of outside ‘powers’ in our region throughout our history.”
Tuvalu and Taiwan
While the Solomon Islands and Kiribati have in recent years followed most countries in switching their diplomatic links to China, Tuvalu has resisted advances to continue in recognising Taiwan. Could they yet make the change? “We have maintained relations with Taiwan since 1979, right after we first became an independent country, and we intend to maintain that relationship moving forward,” said Kofe. Taiwan had been “a strong friend to Tuvalu”, he said, “consistently supporting us when other countries have not. For example, until 2019, Taiwan was the only country to have an embassy in Tuvalu.” He continued, cautiously: “Clearly, there are differences between Taiwan and China. And, perhaps, we are attracted by Taiwan’s democratic government and status as an island nation.”
Kofe hastened to add, however: “I want to emphasise that we do not want an antagonistic relationship with China. We do not have diplomatic relations with China, and we would stand strongly against any attempts by China to act aggressively toward Taiwan. We also lobby for the necessity of including Taiwan in important fora like the WHO as a member of the global community. However, we do not harbour ill will toward China or our Pacific neighbours who partner with China. We support Taiwan, we support transparency and accountability in our region, and we do not support the militarisation of the Pacific by any party.” Alert again to the diplomatic complexities, however, he reiterated that Tuvalu “respects the decisions of our Pacific partners, we respect their sovereignty, and we only wish them the best in their diplomatic efforts”.
A crucial Pacific Islands Forum
While the dates have yet to be announced, a pivotal Pacific Islands Forum remains in the diary for next month. A slew of geopolitical and organisational issues will face the delegates when they gather in the Fijian capital of Suva. Kofe is confident it will prove a success, after limited direct engagement during the Covid pandemic. “In the Pacific, we handle issues in the Pacific way, through consensus. We sit down face to face, and we talk things out. Some of the critical issues we are facing now can only be resolved when we meet face to face and really have a frank discussion,” he said.
The forum is expected to sign off on a deal drafted yesterday to resolve a bitter disagreement over leadership, which had seen Micronesian states pledging to quit the forum. Speaking to The Spinoff before the announcement of the compromise, Kofe said: “We need to focus on the situation with our Micronesian partners. We need to reunite our Blue Pacific Continent and overcome our differences so that we can re-exert our strength as a united Pacific community. We have worked so hard to build a cohesive and supportive region, and we cannot let that slip away.”
The forum, which includes New Zealand and Australia, offered the Pacific states a chance to develop “a united stance and voice” on climate change to “define our Pacific vision from now until 2050”. The overarching ambition, however, was “cultivating a united Pacific voice sensitive to Pacific values of collectivism and caring and sharing”.
The meeting was a chance, too, to assert a collective voice to the wider world. “As a forum, we have to ensure that our region, our Pacific countries, and their needs and interests are respected by the outside world,” said Kofe. “Everything that comes out of PIF in Fiji has to send the strong message that, as a region, we have clear goals and we are willing to express them on the international stage, so that other nations, regions and organisations sit up and take notice.”