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Fiji: Threat of climate change bigger than war

June 12, 2022

Fijian Defense Minister Inia Seruiratu said his country was threatened more by climate change than the geopolitical competition in the region. Fiji has borne the costly impact of several cyclones in recent years.

An aerial view of the Rainbow Reef on the coast of one of Fiji's main islands, Vanua Levu.
Pacific Island nations like Fiji face particular risks from climate change and rising sea levelsImage: picture-alliance/DUMONT Bildarchiv

Fiji's security is threatened by climate change, not conflict, Fijian Defense Minister Inia Seruiratu said in a speech Sunday at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore.

"Machine guns, fighter jets, ships… are not our primary security concern," Seruiratu told delegates present at Asia's top security meeting, which has predominately made the headlines because of terse exchanges between the US and China.

"The single greatest threat to our very existence is… human-induced, devastating climate change. It threatens our very hopes and dreams of prosperity" Seruiratu added.

Fiji, a low-lying Pacific island nation, has been battered by a series of cyclones in recent years that have displaced thousands from their homes and hobbled the economy.

2017 image of the fishing village of Narikoso on Fiji's Ono island, whose population is waiting for resettlement as sea levels rise
Plans to relocate the residents of the fishing village of Narikoso on Ono island have been pushed back several years, as the sea starts to swallow the settlementImage: Christoph Sator/dpa/picture-alliance

In September 2021, Fiji passed a comprehensive Climate Change Act to respond to the pressing impact of global warming. 

The act also formalized the nation's commitment to the Paris Agreement framework on cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

US, China in Pacific island power plays

Although Pacific islands do face some of the starkest and most immediate risks from climate change, Fiji has also been at the center of a power tussle between competing countriesmainly between China and US and its allies — in the Pacific.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi held a virtual meeting with foreign ministers from 10 Pacific countries from Fiji last month, hoping to get those countries to sign a comprehensive security pact with the nation, which failed.

At the same time in May, Australia's Foreign Minister Penny Wong also visited Fiji in the hope of countering Chinese influence and extending Australia's cooperation.

After Wong's visit to Fiji, Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama took to Twitter to say that Fiji wasn't "anyone's backyard," in a veiled swipe at former Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison who once referred to the Pacific as Australia's "backyard."

Seruiratu said Fiji did not feel threatened by geopolitical competition, but that it had to "adapt how we work and who we work with to achieve stability."

Fiji's Minister for Defence, National Security and Policing, Inia Batikoto Seruiratu, speaks at a plenary session during the 19th Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, June 12, 2022.
Fiji has repeatedly called attention to the impact of global warming, asking countries to do more, but Defense Minister Seruiratu is aware it is also in the middle of US-China power games in the regionImage: Caroline Chia/REUTERS

Fiji was the first Pacific Island country to establish diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China, in 1975. Bainimarana came to power in a 2006 coup, which Beijing did not condemn as many western governments did, after which the country's ties with China intensified.

Canberra, Washington, and allies have been particularly irked about China's security pact with the Solomon Islands. Signed this April, the pact raises fears about the presence of Chinese military less than 2,000 miles away from Australian shores.

The waters around the Solomon Islands, particularly the Guadalcanal, were also a crucial strategic battleground in the Pacific Theater in World War II, as imperial Japan and the US fought for control over naval supply lines to Allied powers Australia and New Zealand. 

rm/msh (Reuters, AFP)