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South Korea Hosts its First Summit With Pacific Island Leaders

FILE PHOTO-South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol gives a speech during the opening session of the 56th Annual Meeting of the Asian Development Bank in Incheon, South Korea, May 3, 2023. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

SEOUL, May 29 (Reuters) – South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol hosted the country’s first summit with leaders of Pacific islands on Monday, as Seoul seeks to boost its influence in a region that has become the focus of intense geopolitical rivalry.

As the leaders agreed to increase efforts to fight climate change, South Korea will also consider additional funding initiatives to support the Pacific region, Yoon’s office said.

Yoon launched his administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy last year, pledging to foster a “free, peaceful and prosperous” region built on a rules-based order, amid concerns over China’s security ambitions for the strategic waters and economic leverage among the small island states.

“The summit today will mark a new beginning of cooperation between South Korea and the Pacific islands,” Yoon said in his opening remarks.

Earlier, Yoon held bilateral talks with several leaders including Kiribati President Taneti Maamau and Papua New Guinean Prime Minister James Marape on issues such as fisheries and climate change ahead of the main summit, his office said.

Mark Brown, prime minister of the Cook Islands, told the summit opening that the challenges facing the region were “vast and complex” and talks would also cover areas such as disaster risk and resilience, ocean governance and maritime affairs.

Brown is chair of the 18-member Pacific Islands Forum (PIF).

South Korea’s Indo-Pacific strategy also sees greater scope for trilateral cooperation with the United States and Australia to tackle regional challenges such as supply chains, critical minerals and climate change.

Still, while the Yoon government’s strategy indicates closer alignment with the U.S, “South Korea must still move cautiously between the two great power rivals given Seoul’s larger economic and geopolitical stakes in China relative to other U.S. allies”, said Andrew Yeo, a Senior Fellow at U.S. think tank Brookings Institution.

Australian Defence Minister Richard Marles will attend the summit, his office said, adding it would show cooperation between PIF and South Korea for a secure region.

Australia and New Zealand are the largest members of the forum, a bloc of mostly small island countries at risk from rising sea levels caused by climate change and reliant on aid from development partners.

The bloc has taken a collective approach to dealing with major powers.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi pledged more trade and development assistance in a summit with a dozen Pacific island leaders in Papua New Guinea (PNG) last week. The United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken also signed a defence agreement with PNG after a Pacific summit.

Micronesia could not attend the summit in Korea due to a typhoon, but on the sidelines of the meeting Seoul formally established diplomatic ties with Niue, a self-governing state that is in free association with New Zealand, Yoon’s office said.

Source: Reuters