Australia in a climate against China in the Pacific

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Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese hopes his government’s more ambitious climate policy will help restore relations in the Pacific when he meets with island leaders next week.

Hosted by Fiji, this year’s Pacific Islands Forum will be the first in-person leaders’ summit since the 2019 Pacific Islands Forum in Tuvalu, which saw Albanian predecessor Scott Morrison attempt to water down a regional climate statement in the Pacific.

In the aftermath of that deadly summit, Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama told the media on standby that a partnership with China was preferable to working with Morrison.

Since then, geostrategic competition between China and the United States has intensified. This competition looms over this year’s Pacific Islands Forum. China is seeking new security deals with island nations, while the United States and its allies are stepping up engagement with Pacific nations.

But while Australia is worried about China, most Pacific countries are more concerned about climate change on their doorstep. A new Climate Council report endorsed by a group of prominent Pacific leaders says committing to more ambitious climate action is key to Australia’s claim to be the Pacific’s security partner of choice.

Safety will be on the agenda

Why is security suddenly important? Because the Pacific has become a region of geostrategic competition for the first time in decades.

China has become more powerful. This has seen it invest in an ocean-going navy and seek new security arrangements with Pacific nations. Australian security officials are particularly concerned that Beijing is using infrastructure loans to secure a Chinese naval base in the Pacific.

In April, the Solomon Islands signed a security agreement with China which – if it is anything like the draft leaked online – contains provisions that allow Chinese military presence and resupply of ships.

The deal changed the dynamics of a region long aligned with the West (despite Pacific concerns about decolonization and the impact of nuclear testing).

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare at a ceremony in Beijing in 2019. Photo: AP via The Conversation/Thomas Peter

While Solomon Islands leaders say they have no plans to allow a Chinese base or continued security presence in the country, concerns remain.

Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong – who is meeting with Pacific foreign ministers today to iron out the final agenda for the forum meeting – wants the leaders to discuss the controversial security deal. She says Pacific security should be a “Pacific family” business.

In May, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi toured the Pacific in hopes of striking a regional security deal with the island nations. The proposal was politely declined by island leaders, who explained that there was no regional consensus on the deal.

Undeterred, Wang proposed a meeting with Pacific foreign ministers next week, exactly the same day Albanese meets with island leaders at the Pacific Islands Forum.

Tackling the main threat to the region: climate change

Pacific island leaders say growing tension between the United States and China is doing little to address climate change, which they say is the biggest threat to the region.

For decades, Pacific leaders have called for recognition that climate change is a war-like threat to their nations.

In the first UN Security Council debate on climate change in 2007, Pacific Islands Forum countries argued that the impacts of global warming for island nations were “no less severe than those faced by nations and peoples threatened by guns and bombs”.

In June this year, Fiji’s Defense Minister Inia Seruiratu told a regional security dialogue that

machine guns, fighter jets, gray ships and green battalions are not our primary security concern. Waves crash at our doorsteps, winds batter our homes, we are beset by this enemy from many angles.

Today’s report from the Climate Council confirms what island leaders are saying: climate change is the biggest threat to the region.

Climate change is an ongoing threat to Pacific countries. Photo: Shutterstock via The Conversation

If the world is to have a reasonable chance of meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement and ensuring the survival of all Pacific island countries, global greenhouse gas emissions must be halved by 2030.

A wealthy country like Australia, with high emissions and vast untapped renewable resources, should aim to reduce its emissions to 75% below 2005 levels by 2030, the report says.

Optimism and mistrust

Australia’s new climate policies have been greeted by Pacific island countries with a mixture of optimism and distrust.

Albanese has pledged to cut its emissions by 43% by 2030. While this brings Australia closer to the rest of the developed world, this target is by no means leading the pack.

Most other developed countries have promised to reduce their emissions by at least 50% during this decade. The 43% job cut should be Australia’s ambition floor, not a ceiling.

Australia’s new government wants to co-host the annual UN climate summit with Pacific island nations, potentially as early as 2024. While this is a positive sign, Australia cannot assume Pacific leaders will support it automatically.

Pacific island countries want Australia to do more. This includes moving beyond coal and gas and committing new financing to help island nations cope with the growing impacts of climate change (including unavoidable loss and damage).

Albanese will have the chance to hear Pacific’s concerns in Suva next week. This will be the start of an ongoing conversation. If the Australian government listens carefully and takes meaningful action on the climate, it will strengthen its claim to be the Pacific’s security partner of choice.

Wesley Morgan is a Fellow, Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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