Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese flies into Fiji as Pacific Islands Forum leaders attempt to steer a messy and dramatic leaders’ summit towards a fruitful conclusion.
Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) members were shocked by Kiribati’s withdrawal from the regional body prior to the gathering in Suva.
Other members are missing the summit, including Nauru, due to a COVID-19 outbreak, Cook Islands, with local elections within weeks, and Marshall Islands, due to legal issues.
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The four absences – comprising almost a quarter of the forum – are unfortunate given the emphasis PIF leaders had placed on regional unity at the 2022 summit.
PIF has been mired in internal squabbling, with sub-regions and individuals competing for influence in a long-running spat which has led to Kiribati’s withdrawal.
In the background to the blue continent’s strain lurks both China and the US, also battling for power in the increasingly important region.
On that front, the US has claimed a diplomatic victory this week.
PIF chair Fiji has invited US Vice President Kamala Harris to address members on Wednesday morning, when Ms Harris will unveil a raft of support and deepened engagement.
The US invitation is a major breach of tradition, with non-PIF members usually restricted to a post-forum dialogue.
Ms Harris will announce new embassies in Kiribati and Tonga, a renegotiated South Pacific Tuna Treaty, and a national Pacific strategy when she speaks virtually to PIF’s fishing ministers.
In that meeting will be Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong and her NZ counterpart Nanaia Mahuta, with Mr Albanese arriving later on Wednesday.
The recently elected PM lands two days after New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who touched down on Monday.
Mr Albanese’s later arrival is not likely to be seen as a snub, given he has committed to the full-day leaders retreat on Thursday.
“It is a privilege to visit Fiji to participate in the Pacific Islands Forum. I look forward to meeting my fellow Pacific leaders, hearing their priorities and learning from their experiences,” he said in a statement on Tuesday evening.
“Australia’s partnership with the Pacific is longstanding. The Pacific Islands Forum is the heart of Pacific regionalism – and Australia is a proud founding member.
“A strong, united Pacific Islands Forum is vital to protecting our shared interests in a peaceful, prosperous and resilient region and to addressing the pressing challenges our region faces.”
Ms Ardern will also hold two key bilaterals on Wednesday, talking with Fiji’s Frank Bainimarama and Solomon Islands counterpart Manasseh Sogavare.
Mr Sogavare alarmed Australia and New Zealand by signing a security tie-up with China earlier this year.
© AAP 2022