The Pacific Ocean may have been named for its peaceful winds, but this year’s 18 nation Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) has been among the most combative in its five-decade history. At issue was a confluence of sharply competing interests, with China’s growing role at the centre of them.

China’s delegation stormed out of the meeting after an angry exchange between Nauruan President Baron Waqa and dialogue partner Du Qiwen (China’s Ambassador to Fiji) over whether Du could give a speech on the issue of climate change. Waqa refused China’s request, later saying that it was an attempt by China to “bully” PIF members.

Waqa said that the Chinese delegate “demanded to be heard” when others were due to speak, which created “a big fuss”. The Chinese delegation had earlier been refused entry to Nauru on their diplomatic passports, forcing them to use personal passports. Nauru does not recognise China’s diplomatic status, which it reserves for Taiwan.

Pacific Island states which benefit from Chinese aid, including Fiji, Samoa and Papua New Guinea, objected to Waqa’s treatment of the Chinese delegation. The Samoan delegation lodged a formal letter of complaint with Nauru and also threatened to leave the talks.  

Next year’s PIF will be held in the tiny island state of Tuvalu, which also recognises Taiwan and not China — and will also likely be the scene of a further diplomatic showdown.

The signing of an enhanced “Biketawa Plus” collective regional security declaration has also rankled China, although it is not named in the document. This year’s document notes the Pacific’s changing geo-strategic environment, which is code for China’s militarisation of the South China Sea and growing sway over some Pacific economies.

The main focus of the document was, however, on climate change as the “greatest central threat” to the Pacific Islands. As one of the world’s largest per-capita CO2 emitters, Australia was identified at the talks as the key regional contributor to climate change.

Back in Australia, Defence Minister Christopher Pyne acknowledged that “There’s no doubt the Pacific islands would have a dim view of Australia reducing its commitment to climate change measures, but we have no plans to do so.”

Also high on the PIF’s agenda was the issue of maritime security and illegal fishing in territorial waters. Again, China is seen by some PIF member state as being a key, if unnamed, culprit here.

Further controversy included a New Zealand journalist taken into custody for talking to an asylum seeker being held on Nauru on behalf of Australia. The journalist was soon released and her credentials returned, but it highlighted Nauru’s sensitivity over the asylum seeker issue.

At the PIF, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern reaffirmed her government’s offer to take asylum seekers from Nauru, which was again rebuffed by Australia. Complicating matters, Taiwan has agreed with Australia and Nauru to accept asylum seekers on Nauru for urgent medical care.

And if there was not enough tension at the PIF, there was further disagreement over supporting West Papua’s bid for inclusion in the UN decolonisation list. According to the Indonesian human rights NGO Tapol, almost 100 West Papuans were arrested this week for expressing support for Vanuatu to ask the PIF to have West Papua inscribed on the list.

This issue divides the Pacific Island states, with the Melanesian Spearhead Group of island states split between PNG and Fiji supporting Indonesia; and Vanuatu, Solomon Islands and New Caledonia’s Kanak Socialist National Liberation Front supporting the umbrella group United Liberation Movement for West Papua.

The Pacific is clearly now a site in which larger tensions and issues are played out, and the sea ahead looks choppy to say the least.

Damien Kingsbury is professor of international politics at Deakin University.

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