Tensions Run High as Pacific Islands Forum Tackles Climate Change

The difference between the sizes of the two countries could not be greater: one is an island nation with 11,000 inhabitants, the other a continental superpower of 1.3 billion people. Nonetheless, the President of Nauru has had a heated disagreement with the delegate from China at the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) on Tuesday 4 September, Reuters reports. President Baron Waqa refused to let chief diplomat Du Qiwen speak on the topic of climate change, which led to the Chinese delegation storming out of the forum. The Pacific Island nation has a history of running afoul of China, being one of the few countries with official relations with Taiwan instead of China, as well as instigating a minor visa controversy at the start of the PIF. Nauru refused to stamp Chinese officials’ diplomatic passports, instead insisting on seeing their personal ones. This led to threats of boycott by other members of the PIF, who often receive investment from China in the form of loans and infrastructure projects. The issue of climate change is central for Pacific Island nations, as it poses an existential threat to them. Meanwhile, China’s involvement in the region has been met with some suspicion; the country has invested approximately US$1.78 billion in the islands between 2006 and 2016.

Nauru appears to be one of the parties suspicious of China’s involvement, as President Waqa accused Du of bullying the smaller country. “He insisted and was very insolent, and created a big fuss, and held up the meeting of leaders for a good number of minutes, when he was only an official,” Waqa claimed. Meanwhile, China was affronted by the incident. Hua Chunying, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson, argued that “Nauru, as the host country of the forum, violated international conventions and forum regulations and staged a bad farce,” and claimed the island nation obstructed China from taking part.

These tensions reflect China’s expanding influence in the region. While not a member of the PIF, China is invited as a dialogue partner and continues to invest heavily in the region. This inevitably creates tension, particularly with Taiwanese allies such as Nauru. However, Australia and New Zealand are also reportedly concerned with China’s growing soft power in the area, per Reuters. Despite these geopolitical machinations the PIF came to an agreement on security, including cyber security and climate change. Titled the “Boe Declaration,” the agreement reinforced the need for joint action on security threats, the biggest of which for these islands is climate change.

In addition to its spat with China, Nauru also faced questions about its handling of a New Zealand TV journalist, Barbara Dreaver, who was held by police after attempting to interview an asylum seeker kept in detention in Nauru on behalf of Australia. This drew attention to the questionable human rights records of both Nauru and Australia. Overall, the PIF illustrated the ongoing issue of failed diplomacy interrupting attempts to address environmental and human rights concerns. Though much international attention was focused on the row with China, more important is cooperation towards climate action, which endangers the very existence of these nations, as well as scrutiny of unacceptable human rights violations. These are the issues that diplomacy should be addressing.

Ethan Beringen