High-level players will essentially be locked out of the Pacific Islands Forum as tensions in the region escalate amid China seeking a regional security agreement.
Australia and the US have sought to increase their presence in the Pacific after Beijing signed a security agreement with the Solomon Islands, but attempts by China to sign a similar regional agreement stalled after some island nations wanted consensus at the PIF.
Pacific Island Forum leaders, which includes Australia and New Zealand, will meet in Fiji in mid-July but an in-person meeting with partner nations will not go ahead alongside the forum, the ABC is reporting.
Partner nations include China, the US, the European Union, Britain, India, Japan and Canada.
The White House’s top Indo-Pacific security adviser Kurt Campbell said he expected more cabinet-level officials to visit the Pacific islands, following his visit to Honiara in light of the Sino-Solomons security pact.
US special presidential envoy Joseph Yun also recently visited the Marshall Islands to discuss the Compact of Free Association treaty for their first in-person meeting in three years.
Signed in 1982, the agreement operates under the proviso that the US remains responsible for the defence and security of the island nation and provides financial assistance.
It came as Australia’s Opposition Leader Peter Dutton sought a unity ticket with Labor in the Pacific after tensions strained Australia’s relationship with the Solomon Islands.
Honiara has been critical of Australia’s response after the Solomon Islands signed a security agreement with China.
Foreign Minister Penny Wong has toured the Pacific three times since taking office last month as she attempts to repair bilateral relationships ahead of the PIF in mid-July.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has confirmed he will attend the forum in person.
Mr Dutton said he would continue to build on the relationships the Coalition established while in office.
“I’ve met with the leaders and to the extent that we could over the course of COVID, most of it obviously virtually,” he said in Canberra on Friday.
“I’ve been friends and met with delegations and spoken with Pacific island leaders over my time in parliament, and I’m very, very keen to continue that relationship, to build that relationship, to offer bipartisan support.”
The Opposition Leader emphasised the importance of the region to Australia.
“We’re talking about family and near neighbours that we need to work even more closely with,” he said.
“I’d be very happy to support the government in any way.”