Leaders of Pacific nations convened in Cook Islands from 6-10 November for the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), a crucial regional meeting addressing pressing issues like climate change and growing geopolitical competition.
Established in 1971, the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) emerged from the frustration of Pacific leaders with colonial powers dictating regional decisions. Initially comprising sovereign nations, the PIF expanded to include French Polynesia and New Caledonia, though territories of France, as full members after 2016. The PIF now comprises 18 members: Australia, Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, French Polynesia, Kiribati, Nauru, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Republic of Marshall Islands, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu. Tokelau is an associate member. An outer circle, comprising “forum dialogue partners,” involves influential countries like the US, China, and the UK.
As the region’s primary political decision-making body, the PIF focuses on consensus-based decision-making, often referred to as “the Pacific Way.” The 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent guides the region’s vision, emphasising political leadership and regionalism. The Forum’s secretariat, based in Suva, Fiji, supports its operations.
The PIF Leaders Meeting in Cook Islands was not just a diplomatic affair but also a vibrant cultural showcase. The host country, known for its rich cultural heritage, treated leaders to impressive displays of traditional song, dance, intricate decorations, and delectable food. This cultural extravaganza allowed Cook Islands to shine and present a distinct identity to the attending leaders.
Notably, the Cook Islands government publicly demonstrated its enthusiasm for deep-seabed mining as a strategic move for economic diversification and contributing to the global energy transition. This bold stance was evident in the presentation of carved models of vaka (canoes) to each attending leader, symbolising the country’s commitment to exploring polymetallic nodules in the seabed.
While the gesture was met with appreciation by many, at least one leader declined to take the carved model home. President Surangel Whipps Jr of Palau and Ralph Regenvanu of Vanuatu took a contrary position, reiterating their countries’ objections to the exploitation of the seabed.
The appointment of the Forum secretary-general also stirred tensions, highlighting the need for a streamlined process in future appointments.
Key issues and initiatives
Leaders endorsed crucial agreements, including:
- Pacific Partnerships for Prosperity Initiative
- Pacific Regional Climate Mobility Framework
- PIF Declaration on Statehood and Persons affected by Sea-Level Rise
- Revitalisation of the Pacific Leaders Gender Equality Declaration
- Pacific Quality Infrastructure Principles
During the Forum, leaders made significant strides in shaping the region’s future, focusing on key initiatives and addressing critical challenges.
Discussions encompassed vital topics such as climate change, economic development, labour mobility, fisheries, and trade.
Leaders took decisive steps in implementing the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent. This comprehensive strategy lays out a collaborative framework to leverage regional strengths and confront challenges over the next 30 years.
The 2023 meeting prioritised discussions on climate change, strategically positioned ahead of COP28. A key decision taken at this meeting was the endorsement of the Pacific Resilience Facility (PRF) which has been on the regional ‘to do’ list for several years.
The Forum endorsed the Revitalised Pacific Leaders Gender Equality Declaration, recognising the importance of gender equality. The declaration aims to advance gender equity, although Fiamē Naomi Mata’afa was the sole female leader present, highlighting ongoing challenges.
Australia’s commitment and contributions
Australia views the Pacific Islands Forum as a pivotal platform to deepen engagement and tackle shared challenges. During the meeting, Australia announced the Australia-Tuvalu Falepili Union, focusing on climate change, security, and opportunities for Tuvaluans in Australia. Australia pledged at least $350 million for climate infrastructure and contributions to the Green Climate Fund and the new Pacific Resilience Facility.
Australia actively sought Pacific support for hosting COP31 in 2026. Prime Minister Albanese’s attendance emphasised Australia’s commitment to addressing shared challenges and fostering regional solutions. However, there are still concerns within the regional leadership about Australia’s domestic policies in relation to fossil fuels.
Forum Dialogue Partners
Dialogue partners were back on the scene and made their presence felt. Saudi Arabia pledged US$50 million to the Pacific Resilience Facility, emphasising their commitment to the region which includes seeking support for their bid to host Expo 2030. However, the European Union said that they would not follow this path, referring instead to their commitment to be guided by the 2050 Strategy.
Shaping the region’s future
The Pacific Islands Forum remains a critical platform for collaborative efforts, fostering stability, prosperity, and addressing challenges. The recent meeting showcased the region’s resilience, diverse perspectives, and the commitment of nations to navigate complexities for a sustainable future.