Honourable Leaders of our Blue Pacific Continent;
The Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum;
Heads of CROP, Regional and International Agencies;
Representatives of our Traditional, Business, Civil Society, and Faith-Based Communities;
Excellencies and Distinguished Delegates; and
To the People of the Blue Pacific.
Ni Sa Bula Vinaka and a very good afternoon to you all.
It is indeed my honour to welcome you to Fiji. Please consider yourselves at home and amongst family this week with us.
My fellow Pacific Leaders, it is hard to emphasise just how wonderful it is to be able to gather again, for our first in-person meeting as the Pacific Islands Forum since 2019.
All our nations experienced some very dark days at the height of the pandemic. And I know that many of us may even have lost loved ones to the terrible disease. We will never forget, and I know that it is a distinct blessing that we are all able to reunite here this week as a family.
Let me also welcome the Forum Observers and Associate Members, Heads of CROP and regional Agencies, our international Partners, and of course my fellow Fijians.
Excellencies, this 51st Pacific Islands Forum is perhaps the first of its kind, in terms of the plethora and nature of issues we must consider. Our common challenges have never been more serious and the world’s focus on our region has never been more intense.
It is my personal belief as a proud Pacific Islander that we are at our most resilient as a family; we speak more powerfully as a family; and we can only build our best possible future, together, as a family. And in my capacity as Chair, I assure every one of our Pacific sisters and brothers that there is a seat at this table open to you. Among us you will always sit as equals.
The people and Government of Kiribati have been and will remain always, a part of our Pacific family. We share a rich history, we share a vast ocean, and we share a Pacific culture that has withstood the test of time. I respect the current position of His Excellency, Taneti Maamau, President of the Republic of Kiribati and his Government.
We will continue to dialogue towards a resolution which formalizes the deep mutual respect we hold among us as Pacific Leaders; a resolution amenable to all our Forum Leaders; and one that is in the best interest of our Pacific people.
A key focus of our Forum Leaders Retreat later this week will be the issue of our regional solidarity and how best we, as a Forum Family, can bolster and galvanize our unity. We simply cannot make the same difference for the health, security, and prosperity of our people, without every Pacific voice helping to chart the course of our region’s direction.
Friends, as we very slowly emerge from the grips of COVID-19, our world and our region remain in a state of turmoil. At home, many of us continue to deal with long standing socio-economic challenges that have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
Our sources of revenue – from tourism to fisheries to trade have been hit hard; our public health systems have been tested beyond anything they have had to endure; and communities everywhere have had to deal with the anguish of losing a loved one, a livelihood – or both.
Our thoughts today are especially with the people of Nauru as they reckon with an unprecedented COVID-19 outbreak.
In parallel, we continue to deal with a runaway climate crisis, in which we will soon find ourselves on the cusp of catastrophe. Climate change is hurting our peoples’ security and livelihoods, it is devastating our economies, and in many instances, it is attacking our very sovereignty, as climate- induced sea-level rise threatens our EEZ’s.
Unfortunately, vying for top place amongst COVID and Climate, we also have Conflict. The global geo-strategic landscape is changing rapidly – even from one day to the next.
We’re seeing pronounced fluctuations in the strategically competitive relationship of the major powers, as well as an emerging multi-polar system with some middle powers. Add to this Russia’s war on Ukraine, and our bruised economies must now also contend with spiralling global inflation and grave threats to our food security.
Friends, we thus find ourselves in the crossfire of these three (3) deadly C’s – COVID, Climate and Conflict – each factor dangerously compounding the other. That is the inescapable reality of the situation.
Now, by way of balance, we also have a multitude of strengths and opportunities – both as individual countries and as a region. Our people are youthful and innovative. Our values and sense of community provide natural resilience and social protection to buffer the shocks we face.
We have significant natural resources on land, and particularly in our ocean. And there is further potential to leverage our untapped natural resources in new ways – including through a burgeoning blue economy, through our unexplored bio-diversity, and through renewable energy.
In this context Excellencies, I offer that the most important consideration for us this week is this: How will we, the Pacific Islands Forum, choose to navigate these challenges and opportunities as we voyage into the future? Will we forge ahead together? Or we will opt for individual paths? Will we be assertive, or will we leave it to others to shape our fate?
It is important that we as Leaders are able to have these difficult conversations this week and come away with a “big picture” sense of our future direction – especially as we consider the 2050 Strategy.
In my personal view, there is only one way forward if we are to navigate the waters ahead. And that is together as a family united. Our connections are indeed anchored in the ancient past where our ancestors once sailed and traded, bringing us together as peoples of the Pacific. These connections anchor our unity today, giving us common identity and purpose and bringing us together to take on the challenges of our own time.
The Pacific Islands Forum remains critical to fostering our unity at the regional level, while at the same time giving us Leaders a powerful means to define our strategic response to ever-evolving threats and opportunities.
In addition to unity, we need a vision –– we need a plan. This brings me to the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent.
Fellow Leaders, you would recall we agreed to develop the 2050 Strategy when we last met in Tuvalu. We will have the opportunity to consider that Strategy in our Retreat later this week, and I am very optimistic that this supremely important document will serve as our “North Star” for the decades to come – providing us with a long-term vision, key values to guide our way, and a sense of our shared trajectory.
At the same time though, there are two key considerations that we as Leaders must bear in mind as we consider the strategy – and as we consider the process of Pacific regionalism more generally. Firstly, the success of the 2050 Strategy largely depends on our commitments to it. If our ancestors were the architects of Pacific regionalism, we are its custodians. It is the quality of our dialogue, debate, and the direction that we offer that will determine our course ahead. And every step must be guided by our shared values of accountability, transparency, and inclusivity –– so that no one is left in the dark or left behind, and equally so that our development partners can keep faith in our sustained progress towards the global goals.
My second point is that our collective prosperity must fundamentally drive the 2050 Strategy. We must be able to effectively address our core vulnerabilities over the long term. Economic, trade, and resource management considerations, and the key enablers that support these areas – such as the rule of law, environmental protection, regional security and transport – must underpin our co-operation through this strategy.
Here, once again, I encourage us to consider our shared strengths – from a growing blue economy to sustainable tourism. Excellencies, I make this point regarding our vulnerabilities, because ultimately, I believe that the “strategy within the strategy” must be about ensuring that we are sovereign, secure, and prosperous, and that no external entity has strategic control over any of us – whether through coercion or any other means.
With that said, this 51st Pacific Islands Forum is an opportunity for us to set a stake in the ground. It is an opportunity for us to declare that as a family united, we will come together, we will seize our shared opportunities, we will leverage our shared strengths and resources, and we will address our challenges together.
It is an opportunity for us to declare that business as usual can no longer be our way.
It is an opportunity for us to declare to our youth that we will fight for their survival, their security, and their prosperity.
And it is an opportunity for us to declare to the world around us, that we are the Blue Pacific Continent. We are the world’s blue beacons of sustainable development –– our voices must be heard and our examples should be followed. We have indeed much to learn from the world –– and they have much to learn from us.
We have experiences worth sharing, innovation that lies in wait, and we need larger nations to act with us, not for us, to tackle the great global challenges we face. Indeed, only global solutions will suffice.
Friends, in closing, it would be remiss of me not to acknowledge our sisters and brothers from Micronesia. My hope is that through our dialogue mechanism, and the resolutions that we are working towards, our Forum family can thrive.
There are valuable Pacific lessons we can call to mind from our predecessors this week. Starting with the nurturing of our relationships with one another. Not as Heads of Government but as people. As Mothers and Fathers. As Grandparents. As Daughters and Sons of the Blue Pacific.
The programme before you is designed to ensure that we re-establish our bonds. And I very sincerely look forward to doing that with every one of you in the days to come.
May our Creator continue to guide us in the week ahead and may we all remain unified in our common goal of achieving the very best for our people.
Vinaka Vakalevu – Thank you.