Small island nations threatened with extinction from climate change may downgrade relations with Australia and New Zealand unless they agree to curb carbon emissions at a summit of Pacific leaders in Tuvalu this week.

Waiting in the wings is China, a dialogue partner at the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), which is already matching Western aid in the region. Like the US, another key regional player, it has flown a planeload of officials to the small island nation of Tuvalu.

Host Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga, whose country is already losing two of its nine islands to rising seas, warned that ties would suffer unless the biggest polluting economies took the fate of his people more seriously.

“If our friend Australia does not show them any regard, any respect, it is a different thing, we cannot be [a] partner with that thinking,” Sopoaga said.

“I certainly hope we do not come to that juncture to say we cannot go on talking about partnerships regardless of whether it is [the Australian government’s Pacific] Step-Up or [New Zealand’s Pacific] Reset, while you keep pouring your coal emissions into the atmosphere that is killing my people and drowning my people into the water,” he told The Guardian, referring to the nations’ Pacific engagement policies.

Tuvalu Prime Minister Enele Sosene Sopoaga speaks at the United Nations in New York on September 27, 2018. Photo: AFP/Angela Weiss

Kiribati, Fiji and the Solomon islands are also upset that Australia in particular is offering cash handouts to mitigate the impacts of climate change rather than committing to more sustainable energy practices and policies.

Australian leader Scott Morrison offered a US$338 million fund today (August 13) to help Pacific nations build their resilience to natural disasters and invest in renewable energy, but made no concessions on emissions. The financing will be drawn from existing aid packages covering the 2016-2020 period.

Morrison and New Zealand counterpart Jacinda Ardern hope to use the summit as a springboard for re-engaging with Pacific nations and to counter the creeping influence of China: Canberra through its “Step-Up” package of security and development aid and Wellington with a similar “Reset” policy.

But Morrison is already on the back foot. He did not attend a climate conference held Monday ahead of the main summit that became a platform for Fiji leader Frank Bainimarama, a bitter critic of Canberra, to build a consensus position against Australia’s reliance on fossil fuels.

“Put simply, the case for coal as an energy source cannot continue to be made if every nation is to meet the net-zero emission target by 2050 that has been set by the UN Secretary-General and every other responsible leader of the climate struggle. We face an existential threat that you don’t face and challenges we expect your governments and people to more fully appreciate,” said Bainimarama, who has served on a UN climate body.

Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison after winning the nation’s general election , Sydney, May 18, 2019. Photo: AFP/Saeed Khan

Morrison defended Australia’s record in a statement Tuesday, noting that it had the highest per capita investment in clean energy in the world and by next year would have 25% of its electricity produced from renewables.

However, Australia was on a 2018 list of countries compiled by UN Environment that likely will not meet targets under the 2016 Paris agreement to reduce carbon emissions by 2030. One of 195 signatories to the accord, it had agreed to lower emissions by 26-28% on 2005 levels.

“There has been no improvement in Australia’s climate policy since 2017 and emission levels for 2030 are projected to be well above the target,” the report said. Canberra insists that it is on track to make the benchmark.

Tuvalu will ask summit leaders to support a statement on climate change that can be taken to next month’s United Nations Climate Action Forum in New York. In case Australia wavers, smaller Pacific nations plan to issue their own statement specifically aimed at bigger polluting economies.

Morrison has been backed into a corner, as his name is on the Boe Declaration, released at the 2018 forum summit, which controversially stated that “climate change remains the single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and wellbeing of the peoples of the Pacific.”

Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) members are greeted by traditional dancers at the meeting’s opening in the Micronesian capital Palikir on September 8, 2016. Photo: AFP/Bill Jaynes

The declaration also affirmed “our commitment to progress the implementation of the Paris agreement” and urged countries to “fully implement their…mitigation targets, including through the development and transfer of renewable energy, in line with committed timeframes.”

Until recently, Australia was able to use aid packages for leverage in the region, but the emergence of China as an alternative source of funds has left Canberra increasingly isolated.

Bainmarama, whose country was suspended from the Pacific forum under pressure from Australia and New Zealand after its 2006 democracy-suspending coup, is seen increasingly as a key powerbroker.

Fiji responded by boosting ties with China and setting up a rival grouping, the Pacific Islands Development Forum, which excludes Canberra and Wellington.

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It was allowed back into the PIF after 2014 elections, but Bainmarama had refused to attend summits until there were curbs on what he said was the “outsized influence” of Australia and New Zealand.

“I don’t think they should be in the forum, they’re not Pacific islanders,” he famously told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in 2010.

Bainmarama has broken his self-imposed exile, and now describes the tiff as “water under the bridge.” But it could still dilute the clout of Australia, New Zealand and their Western allies in the Pacific if they fail to make concessions in Tuvalu this week.