Pacific nations are projected to be among those suffering the most from climate change. (Supplied: Darren James)
Scott Morrison’s pledge to “step up” relations with the Pacific will be put to the test this coming week, with the Prime Minister heading to Tuvalu for talks with Pacific leaders.
- Climate change is expected to top the agenda at the Pacific Islands Forum
- Labor says lack of climate action jeopardises relations with the Pacific
- Experts worry Australia’s economic clout alone isn’t enough to retain regional influence
The Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) Leaders Meeting begins on Monday in the Tuvaluan capital Funafuti, a small atoll 4,000km north-east of Sydney, with Mr Morrison arriving on Wednesday.
Climate change will be the central issue of the week-long meeting, along with economic development, maritime security and marine pollution.
Pacific nations have been increasingly vocal in the lead-up to the meeting in their demands for Australia to take stronger action on climate change.
Mr Morrison’s first overseas trip after re-election was to the Pacific. (AAP: Darren England)
But the Morrison Government shows no sign of changing domestic policies despite the repeated pleas, which could strain relations with the Pacific.
The Federal Opposition has accused Mr Morrison of putting relations with the region at risk by not budging on climate change.
“Scott Morrison’s priority … must be to ramp up ambition on climate change,” said Pat Conroy, Labor’s spokesman on international development and the Pacific.
“Without taking effective action in Australia on climate change, our entire Pacific ‘step up’ is undermined.”
Speaking on Friday, Mr Morrison pointed to Australia’s emissions reduction commitments under the Paris Agreement and financial support for Pacific countries grappling with climate change.
“We have … hundreds of millions of dollars of investments in those projects and other mitigation works that are undertaken throughout the region,” he said.
“They do demonstrate the commitment that we have to a cleaner blue in the Pacific.”
Pacific analyst Dr Tess Newton Cain expects the PIF Leaders Meeting will come to an agreed statement on climate change, but warns Australia may need to make concessions.
“It would be very unusual for there to be a stalemate,” she said.
“So, it really does come down to who is prepared to give ground and where. It is shaping up to being a testing time for Mr Morrison in Tuvalu.”
Morrison Government wants a Pacific ‘step up’ amid changing regional dynamics
Since his re-election in May, Mr Morrison has been cultivating stronger relations with Pacific leaders, making his first overseas trip to the Solomon Islands and welcoming the new Papua New Guinea Prime Minister to Australia.
It is part of the Pacific “step up” strategy that aims to reassert Australia’s leadership role in the region, at a time when China’s presence is growing.
Whilst Australia’s renewed focus on the Pacific has been welcomed, it has also given Pacific countries leverage in their demands.
Australia has long been the biggest donor of aid and development funds in the region, but China is making in-roads through both loans to governments and investment in the private sector.
Dr Newton Cain said Australia’s financial support is not enough on its own to secure enduring partnerships with the Pacific.
“Mr Morrison doesn’t want to create a situation where they’re having to have conversations about [financial support].”
“A number of Pacific island countries, not all of them, have access to other partners, including China, which can provide them with as much finance as they may need.”
Labor’s Pat Conroy believes stronger climate change policies are key to lasting relationships.
Fiji’s Prime Minister recently told Mr Morrison that climate change is “no laughing matter”. (AAP: Dan Himbrechts)
“These leaders … have made it very clear that Australia’s re-engagement in the Pacific won’t be taken seriously until we take more action on climate change, so I think that is [their] the leverage,” he said.
As well as the shifting geopolitics of the region, the power dynamics within the PIF are changing, too.
Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama is returning to the regional forum for the first time in many years and can be expected to make his presence felt.
During Mr Morrison’s trip to Fiji in January, Mr Bainimarama emphasised that climate change posed an “enormous” threat to Pacific Islanders.
Papua New Guinea’s new Prime Minister James Marape will be looking to establish relationships, along with the new Solomon Islands Prime Minister, Manasseh Sogovare.
It will be Mr Morrison’s first time attending the PIF Leaders Meeting and he can be expected to promote the brand new, $2 billion Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the region.
But host Tuvalu will be ensuring their visitors can’t avoid their biggest challenge: climate change and its threat to the nation’s fragile reefs.