• Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (right) shakes hands with Prime Minister of Vanuatu Charlot Salawi during a bilateral meeting (AAP)
Regional areas could see an influx of Pacific Islanders after Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull signed a deal at the 48th Pacific Island Leaders forum in Samoa.
Louise Cheer, Marija Zivic

8 Sep - 6:28 AM  UPDATED 8 Sep - 8:38 PM

The prime minister was greeted at the airport in the capital of Apia by the Samoan deputy prime minister on Friday morning before being whisked away to a beachside resort for a day of talks.

He signed agreements with leaders of Kiribati, Tuvalu and Nauru on the sidelines of the annual Pacific Islands Forum, which will be dominated by trade and aid discussions.

Pacific workers will be sent to rural and remote towns for up to three years to cover shortages in low and semi-skilled jobs.

The deal expands on the longstanding, farming-based seasonal workers scheme to include industries such as tourism and aged care.

Mr Turnbull said the plan would help the development of the economies of the Pacific Islands.

"It has to be labour market-tested – it’s to enable workers from the Pacific Islands to work in regional Australia where employers can’t find Australian labour to do the work," he told reporters on Friday.

"You can imagine the benefit it has and the president of Kiribati spoke about that just a moment ago because of the training it provides, the experience it provides and, of course, the income it provides through the remittances back to their island homes."

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Mr Turnbull said the workers who came back from Australia would then be able to pass on the benefits of their knowledge.

"These island nations are nations of seafarers… you see here in Samoa so many of the leading business people are Samoans who have gone overseas and come back with their [new] skills," he said.

"It's a very important part of their economy that people go out and acquire new skills… and come back here."

Financiers will be called on to make it easier for Pacific workers to send their incomes home.

Australia also promised to fund new aerial surveillance missions over the Pacific to detect and disrupt illegal fishing.

The planes will be in the air by the end of 2017 and add to Australia's fleet of Pacific patrol boats.

Mr Turnbull has also struck a deal with Tonga, Nauru and Tuvalu to improve health safeguards.

Each will receive help from the Therapeutic Goods Administration to make sure medicines coming into their countries are up to scratch.

New players at the table

Even before the forum, two French-controlled territories, New Caledonia and French Polynesia, were already a talking point given the meeting has long been exclusive to sovereign states only.

It effectively gives France a seat at the table and the European giant confirmed it would be represented in Apia this week by Secretary of State to the Minister for Ecological and Inclusive Transition, Sebastien Lecornu.

"It is the biggest single change of the status quo in the 21st century in the region," research fellow Jonathan Pryke from the Lowy Institute told SBS World News.

Mr Lecornu is expected to focus on climate issues during his talks with other leaders in anticipation of the COP23 UN climate change conference in November, which will be held in Bonn but presided over by the government of Fiji.

Mr Pryke said for Australia and New Zealand it is a positive change because it allows a western power into the region to counteract China's growing influence.

"I think Australia would be very happy to have another global player involved in the forum and have more engagement from developed countries," he said.

"Australia and New Zealand are seen as the primary developed country partners in the region, so just having more support and more developed nations helping the region develop would be beneficial for everyone involved."

China's influence 'more opportunistic than targeted'

China has spent billions of dollars on aid in the region, dramatically increased two-way trade and upped its ownership of local businesses.

Mr Pryke believes China's growing influence in the Pacific is not targeted but rather part of the country's global strategy to further its interests across a broader network.

China has supplied host country Samoa with 20 cars to help transport forum leaders in Apia this week after Samoa made the request three months ago.

“Although the time is a bit tight, the Chinese accepted the request immediately because Samoa is China’s long-time friend and we would consider the request from the Samoan government as our priority,” Chinese Ambassador to Samoa, Wang Xuefeng, said during a handover ceremony last month.

China also has a close relationship with Fiji, which is often seen as the problem child of the forum.

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Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama will once again boycott the forum, as he has done for years, after an earlier decision to ban him from attending over his role in leading Fiji's 2006 military coup.

More recently, Fiji has joined Papua New Guinea in refusing to sign a new regional trade deal aimed at improving labour mobility across countries in the Pacific.

Climate change tensions simmer

The theme at this year's Pacific Islands Forum is 'Blue Pacific: Our Sea of Islands', so a focus on climate change, transnational crime and fisheries management is guaranteed.

“For the Pacific region and its island countries, the ocean is crucial,” Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi said in Apia earlier this week.

Minister for International Development and the Pacific Concetta Fierravanti-Wells says the way Australia is perceived by its smaller neighbours has come a long way in recent years.

"We have a major responsibility to assist our neighbours," Senator Fierravanti-Wells told SBS World News.

"The stability and security of the Pacific is only second to the defence of Australia," she said.

Tensions over climate change boiled over at the Pacific Islands Forum in 2015, when then Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his New Zealand counterpart John Key were at odds with smaller low-lying nations on the threat to their existence from rising sea levels.

Kiribati and Tuvalu are particularly vulnerable and will continue to push the same message this year.

48th Pacific Islands Forum

Samoa is playing host at this year's Pacific Islands Forum with leaders from across the pacific including Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

"Strong regional cooperation with our neighbours is vital to our shared stability, security and prosperity," Mr Turnbull said in a statement.

"Our increased engagement in the Pacific is a long term commitment reliant on stronger partnerships to deliver economic growth and resilience, enhanced security cooperation and closer relationships between our people."

Disaster preparedness will also be a talking point when the leaders meet given that four of the 10 most disaster prone countries in the world are in the region: Vanuatu, Tonga, Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea.

"Natural hazards cause significant destruction and economic losses in the Pacific. They can trigger crises, which undermine growth, reverse hard-won development gains and increase poverty," Senator Fierravanti-Wells said.

The scale of economic loss for smaller island nations when they face disaster is a major concern.

Cyclone Pam affected 90 per cent of Vanuatu when it struck in 2015 and the damage caused represented 64 per cent of the country's gross domestic product.

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“The increasing frequency and intensity of disasters from natural hazards and from climate change impacts, increasing island and ocean pollution, and contamination is already visibly impacting our ocean, our coastal areas, our homes, infrastructure, food and water security, our livelihoods and our wellbeing,” Deputy Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum, Cristelle Pratt, said in Apia earlier this week.

The recent signing of a security treaty between Australia and Solomon Islands to help pave the way for rapid Australian assistance in the event of future natural disasters or outbreaks of civil unrest will also be a talking point.

The new agreement follows the end of the Australian-led Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands, also known as RAMSI.

RAMSI finished at the end of June after a 14-year effort to rebuild Solomon Islands after an outbreak of ethnic violence in the late 1990s.

Australia's 'step-up' yet to be revealed in full

At last year's Pacific Islands Forum in remote Pohnpei, the capital of the Federated States of Micronesia, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull flagged a "step-up" in Australia's engagement in the region, including a promise to spend an extra $80m to help Pacific Island nations manage the impacts of climate change.

The full extent of the new approach is yet to be outlined, but Senator Fierravanti-Wells said the government will reveal the nuts and bolts soon.

"We seek stronger partnerships for economic growth, we seek stronger partnerships for our security and we seek stronger relationships between our people," Senator Fierravanti-Wells said.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is expected to land in Samoa on Friday where he will announce a series of economic, security and people-to-people initiatives.

- with AAP

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