Global Implications of the 52nd Pacific Islands Forum Leaders’ Meeting
A short, spoken-word summary from CSIS’s Kathryn Paik on her Critical Questions, “Global Implications of the 52nd Pacific Islands Forum Leaders’ Meeting.”
From November 6 to 10, leaders and representatives from 18 Pacific countries and territories gathered in the Cook Islands for the 52nd Pacific Islands Forum Leaders’ Meeting (PIFLM). Amid a season of summits and leader visits, this gathering may at first appear just another annual meeting of regional leaders, but when set in the context of the rising threat of climate change and growing strategic competition between the United States and China, this forum reveals a much greater and global significance.
Q1: What is the Pacific Islands Forum, and what is its strategic significance to the United States?
A1: The Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) is the region’s political and economic policy organization. It is a grouping of 18 members: 16 countries, including Australia and New Zealand, and two French territories. In addition to combined exclusive economic zones (EEZs) that cover more than 10 percent of the world’s ocean surface area, the PIF represents 14 UN votes and an outsized voice on the global stage. As the primary regional organization in the Pacific, the PIF is also the vehicle through which many members prefer to interact with outside nations—it provides a position of strength from which smaller Pacific nations can interact with larger partners.
While the United States is not a member of the PIF, the United States is a Pacific nation, with the state of Hawaii and territories of Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa residing in the Pacific, and has historical and cultural ties to the entire region. The unique Compact of Free Association (COFA) relationships with the Republic of Palau, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia give the U.S. defense rights—and the right of strategic denial—in a critical swath of territory across the northern Pacific.
The strategic significance of the Pacific is evident to any student of history (or to anyone watching where China’s interests lie) but the Pacific region also comes to the fore in any consideration of climate change, preserving marine resources, or the importance of the free and unimpeded flow of maritime commerce. It is in U.S. interest for the region to be healthy, prosperous, and independent, and the United States has pursued a policy of engaging the Pacific to support those goals.
Q2: What were the major outcomes and takeaways of this year’s PIFLM?
A2: This year’s PIFLM theme was “Our Voices, Our Choices, Our Pacific Way: Promote, Partner, Prosper,” a clear message to both PIF members and external partners of the importance of letting regional knowledge and Pacific-led decisions lead the way for the region. With one of the PIF leaders, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, arriving fresh from visits to both Beijing and Washington, smaller Pacific nations were keenly aware of the realities of strategic competition, but also eager to ensure that external partners remain focused on the issues critical to the Pacific.
As a result, a centerpiece of this year’s PIFLM was the adoption of the implementation plan for the PIF 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific. The rollout of this implementation plan so quickly after the development of the initial strategy in 2022 points to a high level of consensus among PIF leaders on the urgency of actualizing PIF priorities and in presenting in unison to external partners how to best engage the Pacific.
Climate change remains at the forefront of Pacific concerns, given that it is an existential threat for many Pacific Islands. In addition to expressing strong commitment for the implementation of the Paris Agreement and other mitigation efforts, the PIFLM approved the Pacific Resilience Facility—a Pacific-owned and Pacific-led facility to facilitate resilience financing throughout the region. The creation of this facility was largely born out of the need for flexible and rapid small to medium-sized social and community grants throughout the Pacific.
Also significant was the official selection of Nauru former president Baron Waka as the next secretary general of the PIF. As recently as 2021, nearly a third of the members—five Micronesian countries—had threatened to withdraw from the PIF because of perceived inequities in PIF architecture, including not abiding by an informal arrangement to rotate PIF leadership between the Pacific subregions of Micronesia, Melanesia, and Polynesia. Intense diplomacy throughout 2022 resulted in a reunited PIF, along with the agreement that current PIF secretary general Henry Puna would step down in 2024, to be replaced by a Micronesian candidate. The affirmation of Waka demonstrates that the consultation process has realized its promised result, and hopefully portends a stronger, united PIF moving forward.
On security, the PIFLM Communiqué specifically mentioned the trilateral security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States (AUKUS), and “welcomed the transparency of Australia’s efforts, and commitment to compliance with international law, in particular . . . the Rarotonga Treaty.” This is a notably positive statement from the PIF, given the sensitivity of both nuclear issues and rising security tensions in the region.
Maintaining the rights and interests of people of the Pacific in the face of rising sea levels was also a major point of discussion at the PIFLM. In addition to the 2021 PIF Declaration on Preserving Maritime Zones in the face of Climate Change-related Sea Level Rise, the PIF leaders endorsed a new 2023 PIF Declaration on the Continuity of Statehood and the Protection of Persons in the Face of Climate Change-Related Sea Level Rise. These declarations call not only for the preservation of cultural heritage and statehood, but also for the protection of interests, such as maintaining EEZ boundaries inclusive of fishing rights and other maritime resources. The Pacific Islands will likely ramp up calls for formal international support for these declarations. Of note, while Pacific Islands may be the first nations to face imminent loss of territory, they will likely not be the last, and how the United Nations and other international bodies position themselves on the issue will be setting a precedent.
Q3: What role does Australia play in the PIF?
A3: As both a member of the PIF and a major actor on the international stage, Australia’s role in the region can be a delicate balancing act. Coming off separate bilateral engagements with President Biden and President Xi, Albanese headed straight to Rarotonga for the 52nd PIFLM. His mission was a challenging one—to both counter China’s attempts to gain influence in the Pacific, especially in the security space, but also to reinforce that the United States and Australia are not seeking to escalate tensions with China.
At this PIFLM, other members were looking for Albanese to demonstrate real commitment to combating climate change, especially given Australia’s plan to bid to jointly host COP31 with the Pacific Islands. As a PIF member, Australia bears the weight of high expectations from other Pacific nations when it comes to addressing the devastating impacts of climate change—not just in supporting adaptation and resilience efforts, but also on reducing or eliminating coal-fired power. Just prior to the PIFLM, a group of Pacific Elders demanded that Australia agree to eliminate coal completely prior to the PIF agreeing to a jointly hosted COP31.
While Albanese did not make hard commitments on coal reduction or, as was hoped, on financial contributions to the Green Climate Fund, he did come armed with other related announcements, likely in an effort to assuage Pacific expectations. The most significant was the unprecedented Australia-Tuvalu Falepili Union Treaty, which recognizes Tuvalu’s extreme vulnerability to climate change and allows 280 Tuvaluans per year to work, study, and live in Australia—presumably permanently. In exchange, Australia can veto any security or defense deal between Tuvalu and another country, raising some criticism that this deal was motivated more by Australia’s security concerns than its climate aims. With the strong focus on climate mobility at this year’s PIFLM, however, this debate may be irrelevant. If Australia demonstrates meaningful follow-through on partnering with Tuvalu as it struggles to maintain its statehood in the face of sea level rise, the Falepili Treaty could provide a roadmap for future agreements between Pacific Islands and larger nations.
Q4: What does this year’s PIFLM tell U.S. policymakers?
A4: As one of 21 PIF dialogue partners, the United States attends the PIFLM dialogue partner sessions. This year’s U.S. delegation was led by Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, and the White House released a fact sheet detailing updates on recent commitments to the region.
In recent years, U.S. policymakers have recognized that U.S. presence and influence in the Pacific cannot be taken for granted—especially in the face of increased Chinese interest and engagement. This realization has resulted in a series of recent high-level visits and commitments, including two leader-level summits in Washington over the past two years, the opening of several new embassies, the return of the Peace Corps to the region, and numerous financial initiatives across fisheries, health, law enforcement, and economic sectors.
While the Pacific has been largely welcoming of these attempts to reengage, it is also skeptical given the U.S. track record of intermittent attention and lack of follow-through.
A key test for the United States will be whether Congress decides to fund the recently renegotiated COFA agreements—seen by many as a bellwether of U.S. commitment to the region writ large. Equally important will be the challenge of matching words with actions on promises to adequately address the climate, health, and infrastructure challenges of the region. For example, while the United States has expressed a desire to work with the PIF on supporting the Pacific Resilience Facility—including an initial commitment of $2 million—the region will want to see tangible, ongoing support to the facility and a commitment to easing the complexity climate finance mechanisms more broadly.
Another key takeaway for U.S. policymakers is the need to fully partner with Pacific nations regarding climate change and sea level rise. At the recent 2023 U.S.-PIF summit, the United States committed to working with the Pacific on this issue, but Pacific nations will likely push for more formal support. Should officially signing onto the PIF declarations be problematic, U.S. policymakers could work with the PIF on other creative initiatives, such as facilitating labor mobility and educational opportunities, securing maritime boundaries, and easing visa restrictions.
Finally, the PIFLM communiqué dedicates an entire section to increasing diplomatic connectivity between the PIF and the United States, with specific mention made to establishing a PIF representative in the United States. This is a natural complement to increased U.S. diplomatic representation in the Pacific and would facilitate many of the growing initiatives between the United States and the Pacific.
Q5: What key challenges are ahead for the PIF?
A5: As an inclusive regional grouping, the PIF provides an amplified voice when addressing global issues—or in pushing back against coercive attempts by larger partners that run counter to Pacific interests, such as China’s unsuccessful attempts to secure a regional security agreement in 2022. While the recent PIF division appears to have resolved itself, it also revealed that significant tensions exist across this broad region—fissures that could be exploited by other actors. Continued internal PIF diplomacy and support by external partners for PIF unity is critical.
Another challenge for the PIF is in demonstrating the functionality and benefit of Pacific-led institutions. With the adoption of the PRF, Pacific countries need to demonstrate to potential contributing partners that this mechanism can effectively and efficiently meet the needs of the Pacific. Ideally, this would become the main vehicle through with the Pacific can utilize a regionally created and led mechanism to address unique and bespoke projects throughout the region. And while the PIFLM adopted the previously mentioned 2050 implementation plan, the leaders also noted that the review of regional architecture—which will help direct partner engagement in the region—was still ongoing.
This all relates back to the primary omnipresent challenge for the Pacific: to have agency as a region, and to achieve the goals laid out in the ambitious 2050 strategy for the Blue Pacific, requires consensus on how to engage with and channel external partner interest. While the PIF’s plan to build out and clarify its architecture is both necessary and admirable, there is an urgency to this effort. As Secretary General Puna remarked at this year’s U.S.-PIF summit, “We must realize that the strategic interest and attention we enjoy today will not last forever. And we must capitalize on it in manner that will ensure sustainable gains for our region and for our people.” The degree to which the United States can be a reliable and sincere partner in this effort will dictate the success of US foreign policy in the region.
Kathryn Paik is a senior fellow with the Australia Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.