New Zealand’s aim to get “greater clarity” from the Solomon Islands about its security agreement with China may come about when the Pacific leaders gather in Fiji next week.
In April, Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta had announced that regional leaders might need to meet as the Solomons prepared to seal the deal with Beijing.
It did not matter. The Solomons’ Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare went ahead anyway and signed the agreement with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi – much to the disappointment of New Zealand, Australia and the United States.
Wang also completed a tour of the Pacific in May, meeting leaders from Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, Cook Islands, Kiribati, and Timor Leste. They all have Chinese diplomatic missions.
According to the Forum Secretariat, representatives from 18 countries, including Aotearoa and Australia, will attend the summit.
China is expected to top the forum’s agenda, among other issues such as the ongoing climate change, Covid-19 and conflict crises.
Chaired by Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, the meeting is an opportunity to “strengthen relationships and reset goals and priorities for regionalism and collective action as a Forum Family”.
“The 51st Pacific Islands Forum is an opportunity for us to gather and celebrate 50 years of Pacific regionalism, and to reflect on and honour what it means to work together towards shared aspirations and objectives,” said Bainimarama.
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“The meeting also culminates with the launch of the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent, which has been developed over three years and consulted widely across the region.”
Mahuta had travelled to Fiji in April to sign a high-level partnership agreement – “uniting like never before” on economic, security, climate change and humanitarian aid issues.
But Mahuta has tested positive for Covid-19 and won’t be able to attend the Foreign Ministers meeting in Suva on Friday ahead of the leaders’ summit next week, her office confirmed on Monday. An announcement on who will replace Mahuta is expected to be made on Wednesday.
Health Minister Andrew Little reportedly has Covid, while Acting Prime Minister Grant Robertson caught it last week. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is in Australia as part of her “world trade tour” and returns home on Friday. She is expected to attend the forum, as she did in Tuvalu in 2019.
Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has said he will attend. His Foreign Affairs Minister, Penny Wong, was in the Pacific days after Labor won the election in May.
Wong, who also met Mahuta during a visit to NZ in June, said Australia is facing its "most challenging strategic circumstances since World War II".
The battle for influence in the Pacific has intensified between China and the West, after Wang’s island-hopping as Beijing continues to raise its profile in the region.
Wang had failed to secure security and defence deals with nine Pacific governments, but he was successful in signing multiple bilateral agreements with them. Wang has dismissed allegations that his government is exploiting the Pacific nations.