Fourteen islands spread across the vast Pacific Ocean, and Australia and New Zealand are linked by their natural environment, faith, culture and traditional knowledge.
Nowadays, they also share challenges: a real threat from rising sea levels, more frequent storms and economies crippled by Covid-19.
But the regional bloc’s first face-to-face meeting in nearly three years in Fiji’s capital Suva did not turn out to be the warm reunion many had hoped for.
A day before the event began, Kiribati – one of the world’s most isolated islands – announced that it would not attend the summit and would leave the bloc altogether. The region’s strategic position and need for assistance have triggered a battle for influence in the Pacific, in which China is eager to play a significant role.
In June, Beijing proposed comprehensive trade and security agreements with ten countries. But it was postponed after several countries refused to sign. However, China hosted a separate political dialogue with Pacific island nations simultaneously with the PIF Forum in Suva.
Delegates personally attended the Chinese event, including officials from Tonga, Niue, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, Micronesia and Kiribati. The Chinese Embassy in Fiji noted that the Fiji Defense Minister joined via video.
Kiribati has moved closer to China after withdrawing diplomatic recognition from Taiwan in 2019 (Beijing considers Taiwan part of China and says it should unite with the Chinese mainland, while Taiwan maintains itself as an independent country) sees.)
Even before the pandemic, Kiribati had high debt levels and needed funds.
China has also had a presence in Fiji for generations. But over the past ten years, it has invested heavily in infrastructure and fishing – and has become a significant trading partner with all Pacific islands.
What used to be a purely economic relationship has now deepened, entering areas such as law, agriculture, services and security.
In April, the Solomon Islands signed a security agreement with Beijing. This week’s meeting in Suva was the first time Solomon PM Manasseh Sogaware met his PIF counterparts.