Japan will invite the defence ministers of 14 island nations in the South Pacific region to Tokyo for a multilateral meeting with Defence Minister Minoru Kihara on 19 – 20 March, sources close to the ministry revealed.

With China’s growing influence in the region in mind, the meeting is intended to strengthen Japan’s involvement with the island nations on security issues.

This will be the second multilateral meeting with the defence ministers of these island countries, but the first to be held in person. The previous meeting, in 2021, was held online due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fiji and Papua New Guinea, which have their own militaries, will be represented by their defence ministers, while countries without militaries will send representatives of their police forces and coast guards.

Director-generals from the United States, Australia, New Zealand and other nations will also attend as observers.

The meeting is expected to confirm cooperation between Japan and these nations on issues unique to island countries, such as maritime security, climate change and disaster response.

Kihara intends to call for stronger cooperation in his keynote speech.

At the previous meeting, a joint statement was issued that included Japan’s diplomatic policy of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) with China’s increasing maritime expansion in mind.

However, no statement or outcome document is expected to be issued from the second meeting. A number of island nations have been developing closer ties with China, and Japan is finding it “difficult to step in,” according to a senior ministry official.

A Pacific Islands Leaders Meeting is also scheduled to be held in Tokyo in July.

The March meeting at the defense ministerial level will serve as a preparatory meeting for the July summit.

Foreign ministers and other officials from Japan and the island nations held a ministerial interim meeting in Fiji in February. They issued a statement that included opposition to unilateral attempts to change the status quo by force or coercion, with China in mind.

The South Pacific region is a key sea lane linking Asia, Australia, North America and South America. Chinese President Xi Jinping has been increasing China’s involvement in the region through infrastructure development and other measures.

Local Chinese police activities have also been noted in the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Kiribati.

As China seeks to strengthen its influence on these island nations, Japan is aligning itself with the United States and Australia to push back.

In January, Self-Defence Force personnel provided unexploded ordnance disposal training to local police in the Solomon Islands.

The defence ministers’ meeting will also seek to strengthen cooperation with Australia, which Japan positions as a “quasi-alliance.”

Australia, which has close relationships with island nations, has a particularly strong sense of urgency about China’s expansion.

While Japan is receiving Australia’s cooperation in monitoring North Korean vessels illegally transferring goods ship-to-ship while at sea, Japan aims to deepen the cooperation between Australia and Japan by strengthening Japan’s involvement in the island nations, a ministry official said.