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Pacific Islands Forum ramps up as Albanese touches down

Ben McKay and Andrew Brown -

Anthony Albanese will join more than a dozen leaders in the Cook Islands for the Pacific Islands Forum meeting this week.

The prime minister touched down in Rarotonga on Wednesday for three days of talks with leaders of a region he has described as family.

This year's leaders' summit will look to show that signs of Pacific splintering are in the past, while tackling thorny issues of climate change, geopolitical challenges and nuclear issues.

"It is important I join with fellow Pacific leaders in Cook Islands for the Pacific Islands Forum Leaders' Meeting," Mr Albanese said.

"Working together, through the Pacific Islands Forum, is vital to securing a shared Pacific that is peaceful, safe and prosperous."

Australia, with fellow regional heavyweight New Zealand, has put much stock in the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) in recent years, part of a renewed diplomatic focus on its home region.

The summit will tackle climate change, geopolitical challenges and nuclear issues.

Palau President Surangel Whipps Jnr said climate change would continue to be a large focus of the forum, along with the role Australia could play.

"Australia's climate policies have vastly shifted, and we need to encourage Australia to continue in that direction and not go backwards," he told ABC Radio.

"With all the money that is gained by fossil fuels, Australia needs to take a leadership role in helping people decarbonise and promoting technologies that decarbonise."

In recent years, PIF has been hampered by threatened walk-outs and no-shows which jeopardise the blue continent's biggest strength: unity.

PIF certainly needed attention. Last year, Micronesian nations voiced their unhappiness with power-sharing arrangements, with one, Kiribati, announcing its intention to leave the regional body.

Unity talks delivered the Suva Agreement which saved the organisation, but they have also delivered a possible crisis.

Under the agreement, Micronesia was granted the right to name the next PIF secretary general, picking Baron Waqa.

Australia may find a more critical tone from Pacific leaders wanting action on climate change.

The former Nauru prime minister is a controversial choice, with a record of sacking the country's judiciary, limiting press freedom, and links to a corruption probe by Australia's federal police.

Both Australia and New Zealand support Mr Waqa's candidacy, citing the need for unity.

Australia has also increased aid and engagement in the region, with Foreign Minister Penny Wong crisscrossing the blue continent to deliver on a promise to visit every PIF member.

"We've been out in the region. We've engaged more. We've listened more," Senator Wong said last year.

This year, Australian leaders may find a more critical tone from Pacific leaders eager to see more action to reduce climate change.

Led by Vanuatu and Tuvalu, an increasing number of Pacific nations are adopting a position to oppose all new fossil fuel production, in stark contrast to Australia's practice.

There are 15 nations intending to send delegations to the Cook Islands, including the United Kingdom, Germany, as well as superpowers China and the United States.

Showing the heightened US interest in the region, the Biden administration is sending cabinet official Linda Thomas-Greenfield, its Ambassador to the United Nations.

On a briefing call on Tuesday (AEDT), a senior administration official recounted its engagement in the last two years, including $US8 billion in pledged funding, new embassies in Solomon Islands, Tonga and Vanuatu, and new USAID agency offices in Fiji and Papua New Guinea.

US President Joe Biden has also held two White House summits with Pacific leaders in the past two years, deepening ties with senior politicians.

Increased US interest comes at a time when China's engagement is also deepening in the region; most notably through security ties with the Solomon Islands.

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare will be a noticeable absentee in the Cook Islands, with Papua New Guinea and New Zealand leaders also not attending for differing reasons.

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