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One of us? Turnbull treads a delicate path at Pacific leaders forum

By Anthony Bergin and Richard Herr

Malcolm Turnbull is on Pohnpei today, the main island of the Federated States of Micronesia, for the Pacific Islands Forum Leaders’ Meeting, having come from the G20 in Hangzhou and the East Asia Summit in Vientiane.

The rapid transition from world powers to one of the least economically-influential global groupings, is a marvellous reflection of Australia’s ability to diplomatically engage.

Despite the difference in scale, the Prime Minister will find that broader issues of security and the environment link Hangzhou and Pohnpei.

The Pacific Islands Forum is the oldest summit in Oceania. It comprises 14 independent or self-governing regional states and includes Australia and New Zealand as founding members.

Turnbull might have hoped that the recent accord between the US and China on the Paris Agreement regarding climate change would relieve some of the previous tension between Australia and our neighbours on climate change policy.

But this issue is too important for the Pacific island states to be settled entirely by the Paris Agreement. The forum states had argued for a more rigorous target, (1.5C degrees increase above pre-industrial levels) than the 2C set, despite many Pacific states ratifying the Paris Agreement.

Island countries still have an appetite for more aggressive reduction of carbon emissions: the forum leaders are pressing for clarification on some of the important details regarding financial support for adaptation and mitigation measures under the Paris framework.

Turnbull will be hoping that a Pacific proposal for a new climate change treaty doesn’t gain traction at the summit.

This treaty would set targets for renewable energy and, in a provision seemingly aimed solely at Australia, would ban new or expanded coalmines.

Most of the leaders at the summit endorsed the proposal in July at a meeting of the Pacific Islands Development Forum, a new grouping led by Fiji that excludes Australia.

The dualism in regional affairs created by the two-forum divide will be reinforced by Fijian Prime Minister Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama’s decision to again snub the Pacific Islands Forum.

Bainimarama’s position is a larger regional version of the “pay for play” issue that Turnbull is exploiting domestically through the Sam Dastyari affair.

The question of how much influence foreign interests should get from financial assistance to politicians is pretty much how Bainimarama sees Australia and New Zealand sitting around the Pacific Islands Forum leaders table as equals.

He has argued that the two countries can’t both set regional priorities as members, while holding the organisation’s purse strings as its principal donors.

Whether Bainimarama’s position is substantive or symbolic can be argued: after all, Fiji has re-engaged with the forum at all levels below the leaders’ meetings and enjoys nearly all its benefits. And Fiji argues that it is forcing the pace of forum reform through initiatives it has taken by creating the Pacific Islands Development Forum.

But Bainimarama won’t participate in the weekend Pacific Islands Forum retreat, a private meeting of leaders that plays an important role in setting the regional agenda.

The Post-Forum Dialogue Partners meeting is an opportunity for 17 non-member states to engage with the forum. This gives Turnbull an opportunity to provide significant leadership, since China, India, Indonesia, France, Japan, South Korea, Britain and the US will participate in the dialogue.

The Pohnpei forum, being convened in the north Pacific, also demonstrates that Australia needs to accept that the wider Pacific islands region is no longer its backyard alone. Countries as diverse as Russia, the UAE, Iran, and Cuba are all playing in the region, and not always nicely.

Micronesia, while not much in the news, is in the frontline of the issues transforming the security relationships in the Asia-Pacific and it needs to be taken more seriously.

In contrast with the G20 meeting, the strategic balance of power in the broader region won’t be on the forum’s agenda.

But some of these concerns are linked to security issues that will be on the table in Pohnpei, such as co-operating to protect the region’s marine resources, responding to disasters, and controlling the activities of organised crime.

Economic integration issues will require careful management of the asymmetric relationship between Australia and its smaller island partners.

After years of controversy, Pacific trade ministers have agreed on the final text of the PACER Plus agreement for closer economic integration, although key market access concerns have yet to be resolved.

But it’s unclear whether Pacific leaders in Pohnpei will be as united as their trade ministers. PNG has walked away from the PACER Plus deal and Fiji wants the issue of labour mobility de-linked from this agreement.

Pohnpei will be a test for Turnbull to prove that Australia still has an effective leadership role as “one of us”. We’ll remain the regional superpower but must show we’re a good neighbour as well.

Richard Herr and Anthony Bergin are co-authors of Our Near Abroad: Australia and Pacific Islands Regionalism, a report for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute