Pacific island national leaders declare climate emergency

SUVA, Fiji (AP) — Pacific island national leaders declared a climate emergency on Friday and agreed to try to bring Kiribati back to the region’s main diplomatic grouping.

Kiribati announced it had withdrawn from the 18-member Pacific Islands Forum ahead of a leaders’ summit in Fiji this week. The move was seen as a sign of China’s growing influence in the region.

In a soon-to-be released communique, the leaders “welcomed and fully supported” the new Australian government’s commitment to the forum’s climate change priorities, Australian Associated Press reported after seeing the document.

Australia, the wealthiest and most populous of the forum nations, has committed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 43% below 2005 levels by the end of the decade under a new government elected in May.

The previous Australian government had committed to reductions of only 26% to 28% by 2030.

Another clause in the communique pointedly urges all forum nations to deliver “clear progress on turning pledges and commitments into action” consistent with containing global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit).

Australia’s current targets of a 43% reduction by 2030 and net zero by 2050 fall short of that aspiration.

The leaders, many of whom are confronting an existential threat from a warming planet, consider climate change their greatest security risk and declared a climate emergency.

Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, who chaired the summit, used Twitter to urge Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese to take further action.

“Australia’s new climate pledge is a step-up that Fiji has long sought — but out of the duty I owe every young person in the Pacific, I have urged @AlboMP to go further for our family’s shared future by aligning Australia’s commitment to the 1.5-degree target,” Bainimarama posted.

Pacific unity was another key topic for leaders, heightened by Kiribati’s withdrawal.

Australia and New Zealand will fund the Suva Agreement, which reforms the forum and new diplomatic efforts to bring Kiribati back to the fold.

While China was not named in the communique, its growing influence in the region was a subject of much discussion among leaders.

The United States, Australia and New Zealand have been among the most vocal critics of a security pact signed between China and the Solomon Islands, host of next year’s annual forum leaders’ summit.

Details of the pact haven’t been made public, but the deal has raised fears of a permanent Chinese military facility within 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) of the northeast Australian coast.

Australia already has a security treaty with the Solomons and Australian police have been in the capital, Honiara, maintaining peace since riots late last year.

Australia has argued that the family of forum nations should manage their own security concerns instead of turning to outsiders such as China. The communique appeared to support that view with a commitment to “family first” security in the Pacific.

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare said Thursday his country’s new security pact would not allow China to build a military base in his nation and make his citizens “targets for potential military strikes.”

The forum’s dialogue partners — including the United States, China, Britain and France — had not been invited to this year’s summit in Fiji’s capital, Suva.

But Bainimarama invited U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris to deliver a virtual address on Wednesday, in which she proposed increasing U.S. diplomatic engagement and financial aid.

Two Chinese embassy defense attaches who were watching Harris’ address from media seating were spotted by a journalist and reported to police. Police asked them to leave, The Guardian reported.

On Harris’ address, a Chinese official in Beijing said his government welcomes greater support from others to help develop and revitalize the Pacific islands. But the official warned that such efforts should not be undertaken to counter China.

Both the Solomon Islands and Kiribati recently shifted their diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to Beijing.