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Reflections on the US-Pacific Islands Forum Summit: An Australian Perspective

Tahila Beckitt


Source: Haiyun Jiang for The New York Times

The second US-Pacific Islands Forum Summit was held at the White House from 25 – 26 September, 2023, to strengthen cooperation between the United States of America (US), Australia, and Pacific Island countries.


Climate politics and security dominated the discussions, and the summit's outcome showcased a notable success for Western powers. The document underscored a united front among Pacific nations on climate change action and, more explicitly, on countering Chinese influence. From an Australian perspective, this underscores the need for our nation to play a more pivotal and meaningful role in these partnerships by aligning our interests with those of our Pacific neighbors.


In recent years, the Pacific Islands have become a battleground for influence between China and the Western world. Despite Pacific assertions that the nations have no desire to become pawns on a “geostrategic chessboard,” the board game style metaphor now increasingly reflects the islands’ reality, with the US, China and Australia heightening their attention to the region, in line with the intensifying geopolitical competition between China and the US. The introduction of the US-Pacific Islands Forum Summit in 2022 was therefore of no surprise to anyone.


Australia has historically held a comfortable position as the region's primary security partner while also providing extensive infrastructure, healthcare, education, and disaster resilience programs to the region. However, recent shortcomings, primarily attributable to conservative and ineffective climate change policies, have resulted in a shift towards China's more engaging efforts.


Since 2014, Australia's foreign aid programs, such as the Pacific Step-Up initiative in 2017, have favoured a top-down and high handed approach towards the Pacific Island nations, hindering genuine relations from prospering between Australia and its Pacific counterparts. Furthermore, in 2019, during the Pacific Island Forum, the then Coalition Government shocked Pacific leaders by refusing to engage or negotiate on climate change, adopting a high-handed approach that failed to consider Pacific needs or perspectives. This approach was particularly tone-deaf, given that the summit took place in Tuvalu, a nation that scientists predict will likely be uninhabitable by 2050. Australia's response to Pacific voices demonstrated a lack of sensitivity, contributing to the Solomon Islands formally switching alliances to China in 2022.


Following the change in Australian governance with the election of the Labor Party in 2022, the approach underwent significant transformation. The Pacific was no longer taken for granted, with Foreign Minister Penny Wong visiting Fiji just four days after her appointment. Relations improved in the following months, with Australia demonstrating a clearer commitment to valuing and promoting Pacific interests. Australia's current objective is to re-establish and emphasise its existing and new strong ties with the Solomon Islands to counter the growing influence of China, as highlighted in the 2023 Defence Strategic Review.


But there is still work to be done. 


Indeed, criticism emerged in the days following the summit, with some Pacific leaders and former diplomats, including the former US Ambassador to Palau, blasting the US's behaviour. Here they noted its propensity to lecture other leaders during the event and accusing the Western superpower of "trying to play catch up." Nevertheless, despite opposing claims from the Solomon Islands' Prime Minister, Manasseh Sogavare, who failed to attend in person, the summit significantly improved relations between the US, Australia, and each nation's leader.


Within the summit, the Pacific's foremost foreign policy and diplomatic priority, which is climate action, received proper recognition. Indeed, the summit acknowledged the “existential threat posed by climate change towards the Pacific Islands through rising sea levels, extreme weather events, and other climate-related impacts. As such, it clearly reflected the unanimous concern among Pacific Island nations, claiming a commitment to climate action that is becoming increasingly overdue. Indeed, despite the Pacific Islands' proactive measures to combat climate change and bolster their climate resilience, the future appears increasingly grim as the region has experienced a 5 to 15 millimeter rise in sea levels since 1993. This poses an imminent and dire threat to the islands' very existence, thus ensuring that climate action from its partners is a highly desirable trait.


Unfortunately, Australia has long been criticised as a climate change laggard. In regards to emissions, while most nations have committed to cutting emissions by at least 50% by 2030, Australia's goal of reducing emissions by 43% sends a stark message to the Pacific Islands. While supporting Pacific initiatives and goals is one thing, action must follow these sentiments. Indeed, Australia reiterated its support for the 1.5° Celsius temperature increase limit, however its continued commitment and involvement in the mining sector, which made a record $455 billion in export revenue in the last financial year, along with its lacklustre and below average climate policies, significantly undermines its intentions and legitimacy on the international stage. 


From a more strategic viewpoint, Australia’s lack of leadership in the climate action realm continually weakens the efforts of Penny Wong and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to ensure Australia’s continued partnerships and security within the Pacific region. While China is also generally regarded poorly for its high levels of pollution, it has recently launched significant operations to improve its climate resilience and adaptation. Indeed, according to Chinese researchers, China’s efforts have seen a 40% drop in air pollution within its cities. Regionally, China has also introduced continual funding to the Pacific Island nations for climate action endeavors, something it has done since 1998. Although this funding, like much of China’s foreign aid, could potentially prove to be exploitative, with the nation often imposing debt burdens and other measures, it demonstrates a commitment to climate change action that Australia doesn’t share to the same extent. 


Upon reflection, the second US-Pacific Islands Forum Summit highlighted both the pressing need for collective action on climate change and the delicate geopolitical balance in the Pacific. Australia's evolving stance, prompted by recent governance changes, signifies progress. Yet, it's imperative that Australia, alongside Western allies, not only reaffirms its commitments but also transforms them into meaningful actions that enhance climate resilience. As the Pacific faces rising sea levels and extreme weather events, these actions will determine not just the region's survival, but also the strength of enduring partnerships in an ever-changing geopolitical landscape.

 

Tahlia Beckett is currently studying International Relations at Curtin University and was the Future of Work delegate at the 2023 G20 Youth Summit in India. A former intern at Castle Asia in Jakarta, Tahlia is highly interested in Australia’s relations with Southeast Asia and the potential for effective and respectful diplomacy and cooperation between Australia and the broader Indo-Pacific. Tahlia has also engaged as a speaker at the 2023 World Food Forum Flagship Event and volunteers for the ASEAN-Australia Strategic Youth Partnership.

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