Pacific Islands Forum: Climate crisis and old feuds resurface as leaders meet screen to screen | Pacific Islands Forum

There was what looked like a virtual walkout, veiled criticisms from certain nations, a video address from the US president, and of course, technical issues: that’s diplomacy in the Zoom Age.

The presidents and prime ministers of the Pacific countries, including Scott Morrison and Jacinda Ardern, connected on Friday morning to the leaders’ meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), the largest diplomatic gathering in the Pacific.

The PIF leadership meeting normally takes place in the middle of a week of discussions and cultural events. This year it was due to be hosted in Fiji, with the country’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama saying in his Zoom speech: “I was initially hoping that when we gathered here in Fiji for the 51st Pacific Islands Forum, the worst of the Covid pandemic would be behind us.

Instead, Fiji is in the throes of a deadly Covid-19 outbreak that has at times seen the Pacific nation have the highest per capita infection rate in the world over the past week. While Bainimarama said he was “looking 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 at Zoom.

But just because the meeting was virtual doesn’t mean it went without drama.

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

Morrison’s office has been contacted for comment.

Kausea Natano, Prime Minister of Tuvalu and outgoing president of the PIF, was quick to raise a key issue for the region: Japan’s plan to dump more than a million tonnes of contaminated water from the nuclear power plant in Fukushima in the Pacific Ocean. , something Natano said “puts our region at risk of potential nuclear damage.”

He urged other leaders to raise the matter with Japan, saying, “Our timeline for ensuring that no harm befalls our Blue Continent is just over 18 months.”

Two matters of division quickly arose. The first – the climate crisis – has emerged as a sharp dividing line between Pacific island nations and Australia. This saw discussions between leaders at the last PIF face-to-face meeting – in Tuvalu in 2019 – dragged into late night and nearly failed twice, with Australia refusing to move on the ‘red lines’ in the countries. negotiations.

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

US President Joe Biden sent a pre-recorded video message, which was broadcast during the meeting, which repeated the same topic.

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

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

In a potential blow to Australia, which has resisted calls to commit to a net zero emissions target by 2050, Bainimarama added: The Pacific and the planet depend on it.

Griffith Asia Institute researcher Dr Wesley Morgan said: “This message is really for countries that have yet to announce a new 2030 target – countries like Australia.

“Australia’s target of reducing emissions by 26-28% by 2030 is now exceeded and is clearly seen as insufficient by island leaders and the United States. “

The other thorny subject was quickly brought up: the near collapse of the PIF last year, when the Micronesian candidate for secretary general was ousted for the Polynesian candidate, Henry Puna, despite the convention dictating that it was the tour of Micronesia.

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

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

It can take some time. The only Micronesian leader present was Lionel Aingimea, the Nauruan president, who disappeared from the Zoom call when Puna delivered his speech. Aingimea’s office was contacted to inquire whether they had left the call in protest or for some other reason, but did not receive a response. A representative of the PIF said that Aignimea reconnected during Puna’s speech, and not after it, as some claimed on the call.

Palauan journalist Bernadette Carreon said that while 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 seats empty, they left their videos but their seats were empty.

She said that although other forum leaders apologized, “I think there is a long way to go, there is still a divide, and I don’t think it is going to be resolved that easily. “



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