On 11 December 1986, the Treaty of Rarotonga was established. This treaty ensures that in the South Pacific, from Australia to Latin America, no nuclear weapons would be held by member states. The treaty also prevents nuclear testing in an act against radioactive environmental pollution. Situated between the U.S., China and Australia, the more than 25,000 Pacific Islands cover almost 15% of the earth’s surface. Their location makes them an international area of interest, with major powers vying for military bases and embassies in the region. Their incredibly diverse marine ecosystems are at the “forefront of the battle against climate change” and bear much of the world’s climate burden while only claiming 0.23% of annual global emissions.
As these islands’ ecosystems become more and more unlivable, its diverse peoples fight to represent their interests on a global scale. However, they also find themselves in the middle of a desperate international power grab by the world’s most powerful and formidable countries. Coincidentally these powerful states emit more than 71.88% of global emissions, landing the Pacific in a powerful position for the future of our planet.
For the past few years, the leaders of the Pacific islands have received countless recurring visits from international powerhouses. Among these leaders are Joe Biden, Emmanuel Macron, Yoon Suk Yoel, Anthony Albanese, and especially Xi Jinping. In July 2023, the Solomon Islands and China signed a police cooperation deal among several others. This deal ensures that China will train Solomon Island law enforcement instead of Australia, following a 2022 security pact with China. These deals mark a historic shift, and possible death of the Pacific’s long term romance with its Western allies. In fact, since 2022, leaders of several Pacific Island countries have publicly spoken out against U.S. interests in favour of Beijing. Some have even been turned against their Pacific neighbour, Taiwan. The 52nd Annual Pacific Island Forum has become an international wrestling ring with sites set on U.S.-China Rivalry who are both forum dialogue partners.
The Pacific Island Forum (PIF), made up of 16 nations, is the “political decision making body of the region” which sets the islands’ vision for their economic, political and environmental future. In light of PIF, the Treaty of Rarotonga has been called into question due to Australia’s AUKUS deal and Japan’s Fukushima nuclear wastewater. Cook Islands’ Prime Minister has recently stated that these acts go against the treaty, which was originally created in the midst of Cold War tensions. However, Japan states that their wastewater would “have a negligible radiological impact on people and the environment”. Meanwhile, Australia finds itself at risk of being isolated by its Pacific counterparts and losing influence to China. Several Pacific Island leaders have questioned Australia's place as a potential 2026 UN climate conference host over recent fossil fuel subsidies which were referred to as “Pacific killing”.
PIF can only make decisions by consensus, and so far, the members of the forum are deeply divided on almost every pressing issue. The forum will discuss the fate of the South Pacific nuclear-free zone and whether the Treaty of Rarotonga is still relevant. They will also confer about deep sea mining which could meet the global dependence for the minerals without fossil fuels. However, it could risk damaging already fragile marine ecosystems.
Australia intends to advocate for their place as host for COP31 and defend its fossil fuel projects. Ideally, they would also make alliances and security agreements with other PIF members to counter Beijing. The tug of war game playing out in the Pacific could threaten the ‘Pacific Way’ of decision making by consensus. With rising U.S.-China divisions, PIF stands to lose its meaning. The original predecessor of PIF was the South Pacific Commission which was run entirely by colonial powers. The U.S., UK, and France decided the fate of the islanders.
As to whether this Pacific schism can heal itself or if history is doomed to repeat itself, we will soon find out. Te Moana Nui a Kiva, Kia Rangatira (Our Voices, Our Choices, Our Pacific Way: Promote, Partner, Prosper) is a traditional chant of the Cook Islands. This call, according to the PIF Chair, is the heart of the Pacific Island Forum. As stated by the President of French Polynesia: “This is the cradle of life, and we don’t want to be guinea pigs”.