Pacific Island Forum 2023

The 52nd Pacific Island Forum wrapped up in The Cook Islands late last week, on the agenda this year were the expected thorny issues of climate change, fisheries, and the way forward for the region in an increasingly tense geostrategic atmosphere. Journalist Tess Newton-Cain reports from Rarotonga.    

Given that the formation of the new government in New Zealand is still a work in progress, it makes sense that PM-elect Christopher Luxon decided to remain at home to do the necessary wrangling, rather than make the trip to Cook Islands for the 52nd meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum Leaders.

However, this does mean he has missed an opportunity to meet face to face with the regional leadership and commence building the personal relationships that are so central to doing business (of any kind) in the Pacific islands region.

Given the acknowledged “interest” in the region, not least by the USA and China, New Zealand’s relationships and influence in the Pacific is likely to be of even greater importance than has previously been the case.

In his place he despatched the outgoing Deputy Prime Minister, Carmel Sepuloni and foreign affairs spokesperson for the National Party, Gerry Brownlee. They dubbed themselves “Caramel Brownie” to tell the world that they were here to work as a team during this political “transitioning phase”.

Sepuloni attended the Leaders’ Retreat on Atutaki whilst Brownlee attended a plenary meeting and held several bilateral meetings with PIF delegations as well as others from dialogue partner countries. With 21 dialogue partners represented and 600 delegates, there was plenty to keep the duo occupied.

It was clear from their comments to the press after a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Mark Brown of Cook Islands that this relationship, rooted in a special constitutional relationship, was a key focus.

Brownlee confirmed that the Ministerial Dialogue between Cook Islands and New Zealand would resume in 2024. Sepuloni was keen to stress that when it comes to this relationship they were “on the same vaka”.

The issue of deep seabed mining was a key focus for the Rarotonga meeting. Prime Minister Brown has been very clear about how he sees exploitation of seabed minerals as a pathway for economic diversification as well as a contribution to a global energy transition.

Brownlee told the media that he was “encouraged” that there would be three years of more research, and this meant there would be no “Klondike” moment.

The controversial choice of Baron Waqa, the former President of Nauru, as the next Secretary-General, made its presence felt midweek.

After Samoa requested a late addition to the agenda for the Leaders’ Retreat to discuss “process”, President Adeang and his delegation walked out of the plenary meeting, leaving the country by private jet the next day.

Prior to all this drama, Brownlee asserted that regardless of allegations against Waqa, he was “the region’s choice” as confirmed via the Suva Agreement.

Amongst the chatter that goes on in and around the Forum, one politician's name cropped up several times, despite the fact he was not present: Winston Peters. The NZ First leader was tipped to make a comeback as NZ Foreign Minister in the yet to be announced government in Wellington. 

There is no question that Peters is a very experienced hand when it comes to Pacific politics, and well-liked in the region.

However, at the age of 78, he may be deemed inappropriate as Foreign Minister given the geostrategic environment.

But as New Zealand voters know well, you can never entirely rule out Mr Peter's ability to get what he wants in politics. 

- Asia Media Centre