Climate crisis and old rows surface as leaders meet screen-to-screen at the Pacific Islands Forum

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison arriving for the Pacific Islands Forum in Tuvalu. Photo: AFP via Australian Prime Minister’s Office/Adam Taylor. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

WELLINGTON, Aug 8, 2021, The Guardian. There was what looked like a virtual walkout, veiled criticism of certain nations, a video address from the US president and of course, technical issues: this is diplomacy in the age of Zoom. Presidents and prime ministers of Pacific nations, including Scott Morrison and Jacinda Ardern, logged on for the leaders’ meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) on Friday morning, the most important diplomatic gathering in the Pacific, The Guardian reported.

The PIF leaders meeting normally takes place amid a week of talks and cultural events. This year it was due to be hosted in Fiji, with the country’s prime minister, Frank Bainimarama, saying in his address on Zoom: “I initially hoped that when we convened here in Fiji for the 51st Pacific Islands Forum, the worst of the Covid pandemic would be behind us.”

Instead, Fiji is in the grip of a deadly Covid-19 outbreak that has seen the Pacific country at times have the highest per capita infection rate in the world over the past week. While Bainimarama said he looked “forward to welcoming you all to Fiji in person over a bowl of kava in the very near future”, for now at least, we’re back to Zoom.

But, just because the meeting was virtual, does not mean it was without drama.

Pacific reporters who were able to watch the livestream from their homes around the world were quick to dissect Morrison’s body language, sharing screenshots of him eating during one of his colleague’s speeches, which they criticised as something that is considered “extremely rude in many Pacific cultures”.

Morrison’s office was contacted for comment.

Kausea Natano, the prime minister of Tuvalu and outgoing chair of the PIF, was quick to bring up a key issue of concern for the region – Japan’s plan to release more than 1m tonnes of contaminated water from the Fukushima nuclear power plant into the Pacific Ocean, something Natano said “places our region at risk of potential nuclear harm”.

He urged other leaders to bring up the subject with Japan, saying: “Our timeline to ensure that no harm will befall our blue continent is just over 18 months.”

Two divisive topics soon came up. The first – the climate crisis – has emerged as a sharp faultline between the Pacific island nations and Australia. It saw the discussions between leaders at the last in-person PIF meeting – in Tuvalu in 2019 – stretch well into the night and almost break down twice, as Australia refused to budge on “red lines” in negotiations.

Natano alluded back to the “raucous and frank discussions” among leaders at the last meeting. He urged action on the climate crisis, saying “there is no doubt that sea level rise continues to threaten the very core of our existence, of our statehood, our sovereignty, our people and our identity.”

The US president, Joe Biden, sent a pre-recorded video message, which was played during the meeting, which took up the same topic.

“The Pacific island nations know better than anyone that averting the worst effects of climate change is going to save lives, or to put it another way, if we don’t we’re going to lose a lot of lives … The United States is committed to dramatically reducing our emissions by 2030,” said Biden.

Afterwards on Twitter, Bainimarama thanked Biden for joining the meeting and “for bringing America forcefully back to the right side of climate history”.

In a potential swipe at Australia, which has resisted calls to commit to a target of reaching net zero emissions by 2050, Bainimarama added: “Fiji and the USA’s net zero commitments by 2050 must become the entire world’s – zero excuses. The Pacific and the planet depend on it.”

Dr Wesley Morgan, a research fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, said: “This message is really meant for countries that are yet to announce a new 2030 target – countries like Australia.

“Australia’s target to reduce emissions by 26-28% by 2030 is now out of date, and is clearly seen as inadequate by both island leaders and by the US.”

The other fraught topic was brought up quickly – the near collapse of the PIF last year, when the Micronesian candidate for the job of secretary general was passed over for the candidate from Polynesia, Henry Puna, despite convention dictating it was Micronesia’s turn.

Micronesian countries – Nauru, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia – announced they would leave PIF in protest.

Bainimarama said: “To our Micronesian brothers, I offer my deepest apologies. We could have handled this situation better, but I remain confident that we will find a way forward together.”

That may take some time. The only Micronesian leader in attendance was Lionel Aingimea, the Nauruan president, who disappeared from the Zoom call when Puna gave his speech. Aingimea’s office was contacted for comment about whether he left the call in protest or for another reason, but did not receive a reply. A representative from the PIF said that Aignimea logged back on during Puna’s speech, not after it, as was alleged by some on the call.

Palau-based journalist Bernadette Carreon said if this was a virtual protest, it was not the first of its kind for Micronesian leaders. “During the meeting when it was announced that Henry Puna was selected, in protest other Micronesian leaders left their seat empty, they left their videos on but their seats were empty.”

She said that while other forum leaders have apologised: “I think there’s a long way to go, there’s still a fracture, and I don’t think it’s going to be resolved that easily.”

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