Australia and China have pledged increased assistance to the Pacific Islands in their fight against climate change, while the leaders of four nations debate declaring the strategic region “neutral” as China and the United States vie for influence.
The leaders of Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji, and New Caledonia’s ruling FLNKS party met for a summit on the first day to discuss climate change, security, and trade.
Australia, an ally of the United States, and China were invited to speak at the summit, and the leaders are expected to issue a statement on Thursday following a retreat.
The Melanesian Spearhead Group summit is the first to be held in five years, and it comes at a time when “the great powers of China and the United States are competing for Pacific influence,” Fiji’s Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka said at the meeting on Wednesday.
The leaders are evaluating a proposal to declare a “region of peace and neutrality” and a new security framework, which officials have previously indicated could serve as a vehicle for China to strengthen its security ties.
The wider Pacific Islands Forum bloc of 18 nations rejected China’s proposal to sign a 10-nation security and trade agreement last year.
Geo-Political Dynamics in the Pacific: Defense Pacts, Security Agreements, and Regional Alliances
Papua New Guinea has a defense pact with the United States, whereas the Solomon Islands signed a security agreement with China last year. After signing a security agreement with Australia, the region’s largest aid donor, Vanuatu Prime Minister Ishmael Kalsakau faced political backlash.
According to a spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Ewen McDonald, Australia’s Special Envoy for the Pacific, desired a closer relationship with the MSG, including “increased engagement on climate change, security, economic growth, development, culture, and sport.”
China’s ambassador to Vanuatu, Li Minggang, told the meeting the MSG had “played an important role in promoting regional peace and stability.”
According to a statement on the website of the Chinese embassy, he also stated that China desired to increase cooperation in the fields of economy, trade, tourism, and climate change.
China provided funding for the Melanesian Spearhead Group’s new headquarters in Vanuatu, which it established four decades ago to promote the independence of indigenous Melanesian groups.