Climate Change at Pacific Summit


The challenges of climate change and protecting one of the world's last pristine ocean environments are set to dominate this week's Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) in the Cook Islands.

But the expected presence of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will ensure geo-political concerns, particularly China's growing influence in the South Pacific, are also high on the agenda at the regional summit.

The 15-nation PIF grouping is largely made up of small island states, along with resource-rich Papua New Guinea and regional powers Australia and New Zealand.

Many of the low-lying island nations are on the front line of climate change, rising just a few meters (feet) above sea-level and in danger of being swamped if global warming causes the world's oceans to rise.

"We're very exposed to climate change impacts, loss of fresh water, coastal erosion, acidification of water with impacts on coral reefs," PIF secretary-general Tuiloma Neroni Slade told reporters Monday.

"So we'll be paying particular attention to these issues."

While the landmass of many PIF nations is tiny, with the Cook Islands barely larger than Washington DC, their marine territories are vast, covering 10 percent of the world's oceans, according to Conservation International.

Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna is expected to announce the creation of a huge marine park stretching more than one million square kilometers (386,000 square miles) at the PIF opening ceremony on Tuesday.

Puna has described the plan as "a major contribution to the well-being of humanity", which will help preserve delicate eco-systems and maintain the Pacific Ocean's health.

On the sidelines of the summit, officials are abuzz about the planned visit later this week by Clinton, the most senior U.S. official to attend the PIF.

Puna said Monday that the trip, seen by analysts as sending a pointed message to China that Washington wants to re-engage with the South Pacific, had not been officially confirmed but he was confident it would go ahead.

Beijing is believed to have poured hundreds of millions of dollars in aid into the region in recent years and Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr said China's presence in the South Pacific was now "a fact of life".

"My message really is that Australia and New Zealand have got to live with the fact that China will want to deliver aid in this part of the world (and) there is nothing we can do to stop it," he told the Australian Financial Review.

The absence of Fiji, which was suspended from the PIF in 2009 in the wake of a 2006 military coup, is also likely to be a major topic of discussion.

Many of the smaller PIF states have lobbied for Fiji's re-admission but Australia and New Zealand are expected to resist the move until the country's military regime fulfils its promise to hold elections in 2014.

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