US vice president Kamala Harris will address Pacific Islands Forum leaders (Photo: RNZ/AFP)
US vice president Kamala Harris will address Pacific Islands Forum leaders (Photo: RNZ/AFP)

The BulletinJuly 13, 2022

Geopolitical flex in the Pacific

US vice president Kamala Harris will address Pacific Islands Forum leaders (Photo: RNZ/AFP)
US vice president Kamala Harris will address Pacific Islands Forum leaders (Photo: RNZ/AFP)

Despite calls for a focus on unity and climate change, it’s been hard to get past the geopolitical machinations surrounding the Pacific Islands Forum, writes Anna Rawhiti-Connell in The Bulletin.


Geo-political flex in the darndest places

I started writing this morning’s Bulletin as an explainer on Kiribati’s withdrawal from the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) but with 87 browser tabs now open, it’s become something of a deep dive into the geopolitical threads feeding into that story. Here’s a good explainer nonetheless. I somehow ended up on the US Navy League’s website and while it’s not quite on the same level as the US flying four nuclear-capable stealth bombers to Brisbane this week, I discovered you can find geo-political muscle being flexed in the darndest places. Kiribati is currently experiencing a drought and the US coast guard helped deliver drinking water there last week. This story from the US Navy League about the water delivery notes the importance of the gesture at a time when China is seeking to “have greater influence in Oceania”.

Claims that Kiribati’s withdrawal from PIF influenced by China

Kiribati’s opposition leader Tessie Lambourne has made the claim that Kiribati’s withdrawal from the forum was driven by pressure from China. The Chinese foreign ministry has denied the allegations, calling them “groundless”. There were earlier reports from Reuters about China trying to host a video meeting with 10 nations it wants to sign a multilateral pact with on July 14, the final day of the PIF leaders meeting. Back in June, the ABC reported that the US and China were set to be excluded from PIF to avoid “distraction”. In recent decades PIF has held a separate in-person meeting with dialogue partners like the US and China during the leaders’ week.

US vice president Kamala Harris to address forum leaders 

Reporting on the news that US vice president Kamala Harris would be addressing forum leaders, 1 News’ Barbara Dreaver noted that post-dialogue meetings with non-PIF members had indeed been cancelled at the forum this year. While Harris is appearing virtually, it still, as Dreaver says, makes Harris’ address something of a diplomatic coup. A raft of commitments to the Pacific have been announced ahead of the address including the establishment of embassies in Kiribati and Tonga, tripling the funding for economic development and ocean resilience, the appointment of the first-ever US envoy to the Pacific Islands Forum, and developing a new US national strategy on the Pacific.

One of the world’s most vulnerable nations to climate change

Many leaders at PIF, including Jacinda Ardern, have said they don’t want Kiribati’s withdrawal to distract from a forum that was meant to be focused on unity and the very real impacts of climate change on countries like Kiribati. But even the exercise of pulling on threads for this morning’s Bulletin reveals enormous complexity and inevitable distraction, which is a real shame. In an interview with Stuff’s Sapeer Mayron about efforts to preserve the Kiribati language (it’s Kiribati language week this week), Charles Enoka Kiata talks about his concerns about the impact of climate change on the country. Kiribati is widely acknowledged as one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to the impacts of sea level rise caused by climate change.

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