Australian PM arrives in Samoa for Pacific Leaders forum

Report by Marija Zivic

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has arrived in the Samoan capital Apia for the 48th Pacific Leaders forum, where trade and aid will dominate.

The prime minister was greeted at the airport by the Samoan deputy prime minister on Friday morning before being whisked away to a beachside resort for a day of talks.

The addition of two French controlled territories, New Caledonia and French Polynesia, as permanent members is already a talking point given the forum has long been exclusive to sovereign states only.

It effectively gives France a seat at the table and the European giant has confirmed it will be represented in Apia this week by Secretary of State to the Minister for Ecological and Inclusive Transition, Sebastien Lecornu.

“It is the biggest single change of the status quo in the 21st century in the region,” research fellow Jonathan Pryke from the Lowy Institute told SBS World News.

Mr Lecornu is expected to focus on climate issues during his talks with other leaders in anticipation of the COP23 UN climate change conference in November, which will be held in Bonn but presided over by the government of Fiji.

Mr Pryke said for Australia and New Zealand it is a positive change because it allows a western power into the region to counteract China’s growing influence.

“I think Australia would be very happy to have another global player involved in the forum and have more engagement from developed countries,” he said.

“Australia and New Zealand are seen as the primary developed country partners in the region, so just having more support and more developed nations helping the region develop would be beneficial for everyone involved.”

China’s influence ‘more opportunistic than targeted’

China has spent billions of dollars on aid in the region, dramatically increased two-way trade and upped its ownership of local businesses.

Mr Pryke believes China’s growing influence in the Pacific is not targeted but rather part of the country’s global strategy to further its interests across a broader network.

China has supplied host country Samoa with 20 cars to help transport forum leaders in Apia this week after Samoa made the request three months ago.

“Although the time is a bit tight, the Chinese accepted the request immediately because Samoa is China’s long-time friend and we would consider the request from the Samoan government as our priority,” Chinese Ambassador to Samoa, Wang Xuefeng, said during a handover ceremony last month.

China also has a close relationship with Fiji, which is often seen as the problem child of the forum.

China ‘acting like a bully’ in Asia-Pacific region, McCain in Sydney says Veteran US Senator John McCain has accused China of becoming a bully in the Asia Pacific and says he wants Australia to work with America to help modify Beijing’s behaviour.

Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama will once again boycott the forum, as he has done for years, after an earlier decision to ban him from attending over his role in leading Fiji’s 2006 military coup.

More recently, Fiji has joined Papua New Guinea in refusing to sign a new regional trade deal aimed at improving labour mobility across countries in the Pacific.

Climate change tensions simmer

The theme at this year’s Pacific Islands Forum is ‘Blue Pacific: Our Sea of Islands’, so a focus on climate change, transnational crime and fisheries management is guaranteed.

“For the Pacific region and its island countries, the ocean is crucial,” Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi said in Apia earlier this week.

Minister for International Development and the Pacific Concetta Fierravanti-Wells says the way Australia is perceived by its smaller neighbours has come a long way in recent years.

“We have a major responsibility to assist our neighbours,” Minister Fierravanti-Wells told SBS World News.

“The stability and security of the Pacific is only second to the defence of Australia,” she said.

Tensions over climate change boiled over at the Pacific Islands Forum in 2015, when then Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his New Zealand counterpart John Key were at odds with smaller low-lying nations on the threat to their existence from rising sea levels.

Kiribati and Tuvalu are particularly vulnerable and will continue to push the same message this year.