Tuvalu, sinking in the Pacific, fears becoming a superpower 'pawn'
By Kirsty Needham
SYDNEY (Reuters) - Tuvalu fears that climate change, an existential threat to the Pacific nation, is being forgotten and fears that other island nations could become "pawns" in a global competition between China and the United States, its foreign minister has said .
Simon Kofe told Reuters that superpower competition is an issue that is diverting attention away from climate change, the priority for Pacific islands threatened by rising sea levels.
"It is important that the Pacific deals carefully with these issues," he said in an interview on Thursday. "The last thing we want is for Pacific countries to be used against each other or as pawns."
Kofe drew global attention for his nation of 12,000 last year when he spoke at a global climate conference while standing ankle-deep in the sea to illustrate that Tuvalu was "sinking". Forty percent of the capital district is submerged at high tide, and the tiny country is projected to be submerged by the end of the century.
Pacific island leaders will discuss a controversial new security pact between the Solomon Islands and China at a meeting next month, Kofe said. He said he had been briefed on the issue by his Solomon Islands counterpart and although Honiara said it was an internal matter, it had regional implications.
"In the Pacific, the way we deal with problems is the Pacific way, consensus, by sitting down and face-to-face," he said. COVID-19 has prevented in-person meetings for two years, and "some of these critical issues can only be resolved by meeting in person and really having an open discussion."
The United States has warned the Solomon Islands it would have "significant concerns and will respond accordingly" to any move to establish a permanent Chinese military presence after enacting the security pact that has also alarmed allies Australia, New Zealand and Japan.
Beijing says the deal is about internal security, not a basis, and criticism from Western countries has meddled with Solomon Islands' sovereign decision-making.
Another important issue for Tuvalu is fisheries, where China is seeking more deals with Pacific islands for its fleet. Washington says it will soon announce plans to tackle illegal fishing in the region as part of increased U.S. action to counter growing Chinese influence.
"The Pacific is the richest fishing ground in the world and is said to be the last healthy stock of tuna," Kofe said. "This is truly a tribute to the conservation and management efforts of the Pacific Island nations."
Tiny Pacific islands that feed the world from their economic lockdown bear a disproportionate burden, he said.
"Tuna supports the economies of Japan, China and many countries around the world," he said. "Bigger players coming into the region need to listen and look at what the Pacific is currently doing and learn lessons for working together on issues other than fisheries."
Seeking an international platform on climate change, Tuvalu has proposed its former Governor-General Iakoba Taeia Italeli to become Secretary-General of the Commonwealth - the first time a Pacific nation has sought the role in the grouping.
The story goes on
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