The Pacific Islands Forum is at a pivotal time, and the leaders went to a one-day closed-door meeting to discuss regional issues.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese will attend his first leadership retreat on Thursday, along with 13 other forum leaders in Fiji’s capital, Suva.
The day will kick off with a traditional family photo as leaders don host-designed T-shirts at the most recognizable moment of the annual event.
The leaders will then proceed to secret talks, currently scheduled for seven hours.
The retreat has a reputation for being cumbersome and unpredictable, given the difficulty of reaching consensus with so many leaders in the room, each with their own plans.
At the last meeting in 2019, it was Australia that stood firm.
The Pacific countries, living under the threat of climate catastrophe, insisted on the wording of the final communiqué aimed at the use of coal and wanted to commit themselves to keeping global warming below 1.5%.
Former Coalition Prime Minister Scott Morrison spoke out during the 12-hour marathon, bringing Tonga’s prime minister to tears, according to other leaders.
Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama later called the meeting “one of the most disappointing days of my life”.
“The prime minister was very abusive, very condescending, not good for relationships,” he told The Guardian at the time.
Tuvaluan Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga, who hosted the meeting in 2019, accused Australia of being “only concerned with saving your economy.”
“I am worried about saving my people in Tuvalu, as well as the leaders of other South Pacific small island countries,” he said.
Pacific leaders have welcomed the Australian government’s new climate stance, including major targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 43% and produce renewable energy by 82% by 2030.
However, this does not mean that the climate will again become a stumbling block, given the urgency of the issue in the Pacific.
“Of course the number one issue for them is climate change because it is a threat to their very existence,” Mr. Albanese told Nine Network on Thursday.
There are other issues that could jeopardize Albanese’s international relations honeymoon.
Australia’s bid for a nuclear submarine fleet could face resistance given the anti-nuclear stance of many in the region, enshrined in the Treaty of Rarotonga.
A growing group of Pacific nations have also called for a moratorium on deep sea mining, an issue that, if raised, could reveal divergent views.
Privately, officials expect – and hope – for a smooth meeting after the disgruntled Micronesian nation of Kiribati withdrew from the forum on the eve of the summit.
However, regional unity and regional security will be the main topics of discussion after the Solomon Islands is linked with China in the security sphere, which has raised fears in Australia and New Zealand about Chinese militarization in the Pacific.
“What we need to do … is to make it clear what the interests of Australia are, and obviously it would not be in Australia’s interest to have a military base so close to where Australia is,” Mr Albanese said of the Solomon Islands issue.
Australia and New Zealand are pushing Pacific island leaders to keep previous pledges and are looking to them first for security measures.
The Chairman of the Fiji Forum also hopes that the retreat will approve a new long-term plan for the region, the Blue Pacific Strategy 2050, which has been the highlight of his year as Chairman.
The meeting should also approve Solomon Islands as the next chair and host of the 2023 meeting.