NAURU (Kyodo) -- Leaders of Pacific island nations gathered Monday on the tiny island of Nauru for the official opening of the 49th Pacific Islands Forum, with leaders expected to sign a wide-ranging agreement that places climate change on par with regional security issues.
The new Biketawa Plus security agreement will build on the original Biketawa Declaration, signed in 2000, which provided a framework for collective regional responses to political tensions and crises.
Leaders already agreed at the 2017 Pacific Islands Forum to expand the concept of regional security to include prioritizing environmental security and regional cooperation in building resilience to disasters and climate change.
However, a draft of the Biketawa Plus declaration goes one step further, describing climate change as the region's "single greatest threat," according to Australian and regional media.
Speaking with media gathered in Nauru on Saturday, forum Secretary General Meg Taylor said the flow-on effects of climate change, such as food security, are foremost in the minds of Pacific islanders.
"All of us who come from island states just know that (climate change) is a threat, whether you're living right near the sea, or you're living high in the mountains. It's got an impact on climate, agriculture, food security, and people know this and they're talking about it," she said.
Taylor acknowledged that not all member states may be pleased with the draft wording of the document.
Australia, the largest of the 18 forum member states, has recently moved away from previous climate change commitments, with the country's revised energy and climate change policy more heavily geared toward driving down power prices rather than reaching Paris Agreement targets.
In addition, Australia and New Zealand are set to strengthen cooperation with the Pacific countries in areas such as defense, humanitarian aid, and disaster relief and prevention.
The four-day forum comes as global attention in the Pacific region reaches new heights, with China and Australia increasingly looking to extend their influence.
Between 2006 and 2016, China committed almost $1.8 billion in aid projects across the Pacific, according to the Lowy Institute, an Australian independent think tank.
According to the Australian Broadcasting Corp., Tonga has external debt totaling $240 million, accounting for 41 percent of gross domestic product, with two-thirds of the debt owed to China's Exim Bank.
In Vanuatu, it was reported that China is considering construction of a military base. In addition, China is seen to be boosting its soft diplomacy in the Pacific by offering infrastructure development to countries such as the Solomon Islands that have diplomatic relations with Taiwan.
Australia, in what many have seen as attempts to counter Beijing, have agreed to jointly fund the building of an undersea high-speed internet cable in the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea.
Australia and New Zealand, which regard the Pacific island countries as being in their backyard, regard the moves by Beijing with increasing concern and are expressing an increase in aid in to the region.
The Pacific Islands Forum is the region's premiere political and economic policy organization.
The 18 member states of the forum are Australia, Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, French Polynesia, Kiribati, Nauru, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Republic of Marshall Islands, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.
Japan, along with China and the United States, are among the 12 forum dialogue partner countries.
Japanese Parliamentary Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs will participate in meetings with dialogue partners on Tuesday.