Pacific Security Snapshot: 19 July 2022

The Pacific Islands Forum Leaders’ Meeting has delivered strong calls for climate action despite ongoing membership challenges, whilst Papua New Guinea’s election is seeing violence spike around the country.

Pacific Island leaders gathered in Suva last week for the 51st Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) Leaders Meeting, with the summit’s opening marked by a handful of empty seats following last-minute absences.

Presidents Maamau of Kiribati, Kabua of Marshall Islands and Aingimea of Nauru were notably absent from the annual meeting, whilst Cook Islands Prime Minister Brown attended virtually.

On the eve of the meeting, President Maamau made the shock announcement that Kiribati would withdraw from the Forum. In an open letter, he claimed he was dissatisfied with the recently announced Suva agreement, which was aimed at addressing Micronesian grievances regarding the ongoing leadership dispute over the secretary general position. This comes as regional leaders expressed growing concern about external geopolitical pressure dividing the region.

Marshall Islands (RMI) President Kabua, on the other hand, confirmed on Monday he would not attend as RMI was technically still not a PIF member. Whilst Kabua had agreed to rejoin PIF following the Suva agreement, it is understood that his government has not yet been able to pass a bill in parliament overturning the country’s previous withdrawal.

Additionally, President Aingimea did not attend due to rising cases of COVID-19 in Nauru, whilst Prime Minister Brown cited the upcoming Cook Islands general election, which is due to be held on 1 August, as the reason for his absence.

During the opening session of the meeting, Fiji Prime Minister and PIF Chair Voreqe Bainimarama stated that the meeting was “an opportunity to declare that business as usual can no longer be our way”. Secretary General Henry Puna reaffirmed “the critical importance of regional cooperation” to face the Pacific’s shared challenges.

central focus of the meeting was the 2050 Blue Pacific Continent strategy, which lays out the Forum’s long-term approach to issues including climate change, security, and the COVID-19 recovery.

In a surprise intervention, United States Vice President Kamala Harris joined the leaders virtually, announcing a raft of initiatives, including a permanent American envoy to PIF and $500 million in funding for the Forum Fisheries Agency. The American intervention was reportedly at the invitation of Prime Minister Bainimarama and comes despite the announced delay of meetings with Forum Dialogue Partners.

In Papua New Guinea (PNG), the country’s general election continues to be disrupted by violence, alleged ballot tampering, and frustration for thousands of eligible voters who have reportedly been disenfranchised. PNG police have reported 23 deaths associated with the election as unrest continues in the country, especially in the Highlands.

Video footage appearing to show shooting between security personnel and supporters of rival candidates in Laigam station in Enga province went viral on social media, with the area continuing to be deemed volatile by police.

In Kompiam provice, a helicopter extracting ballot boxes was shot at, forcing Police Commissioner David Manning to abandon all airlifts. All ballots will now have to be extracted by road, with significant delays expected as a result. Manning also announced that police presence would be increased throughout the Eastern Highland Province to provide greater security for polling and ongoing counting.

Incidents of ballot tampering have been reported in the Enga and Hela Provinces. In the Western Highlands, violence has erupted around the capital, Mt Hagen, as the Highlands Highway into the city was closed down on the eve of polling, along with all other land and air entry into the city. In the Southern Highlands, over 1,000 additional security personnel are expected to arrive in an effort to a ensure a peaceful vote.

Prime Minister James Marape’s seat of Tari-Pori was the first to be declared in the country, with Marape securing a majority of votes. Marape and former Prime Minister Peter O’Neill are the current frontrunners for the top job.

Marape has also publicly acknowledged that the common electoral roll was “not adequately prepared” following revelations that “up to a million” PNG citizens may be ineligible to vote due to failures to properly update the roll. In response, the prime minister has advised the Electoral Commission to allow any adult who voted in 2017 or earlier to cast a ballot.

In Vanuatu, the government has asked Australia to conduct urgent repairs on the RVS Takuare, the Guardian-class patrol boat gifted to the country a little over one year ago. The patrol boat reportedly has significant faults in its exhaust system and risks of carbon-monoxide leakages.

In Tonga, the Women and Children’s Crisis Centre has revealed that domestic violence cases have risen significantly since the country’s volcanic eruption and tsunami in January. Before the eruption, the Crisis Centre handled between 24 to 30 cases per month. It now reportedly handles over 50 per month.

Finally, the US-led Rim of the Pacific Exercise 2022 (RIMPAC) is underway around the Hawaiian islands, featuring over 25,000 military personnel and 38 surface ships. The armed forces of Tonga, New Zealand, Australia, and France are all in attendance.

The information in this piece is accurate as of 12pm (AEST), Wednesday 13 July.

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