The World's Gaze Turns to the South Pacific
Image Credit: U.S. State Department (Flickr)

The World's Gaze Turns to the South Pacific

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RAROTONGA – Hillary Clinton’s first diplomatic foray into the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) took Washington’s much-vaunted “rebalance” to the Asia-Pacific an enormous step forward while upping the ante in a region that is often passed-over as a political backwater.

The message was simple. The U.S. Secretary of State wants Pacific leaders to believe that Washington thinks the 16 isolated states of the PIF matter, and that they will find a much more amiable friend in the U.S. than in China or Russia.

She told the annual PIF dialogue partners meeting that the Pacific was big enough for everyone, including the European Union, Canada, the U.K., and China, while adding the U.S. was looking to an “American model of partnership”.

“That’s why I have said that the 21st Century will be America’s Pacific Century, with an emphasis on the Pacific. That Pacific half of Asia-Pacific doesn’t always get as much attention as it should, but the United States knows this region is strategically and economically vital and becoming more so,” she said.

Her visit was almost certainly the single most important diplomatic event in the Cook Islands since Britain’s Queen Elizabeth dropped-in for a one day stop-over in 1974. It also came amid a high stakes game of checkbook diplomacy which is being played out among the tiny Pacific states.

This much was obvious over here during the last week.

Backroom bargaining and deals signed or others negotiated on foreign policy formed an undercurrent over formal negotiations between member states and another 41 countries – including Israel, Cuba and even Kosovo – which sent delegations.

The PIF, established in 1971, is supposed to promote cohesion and cooperation between its isolated members, whose concerns primarily relate to climate change, trade, fishing, and transportation. To be fair this year’s summit did provide a focus on those issues.

A new marine park, the largest in the world, was declared. Trade and fishing agreements were thrashed out and gender initiatives were established with Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard launching a US$330 million initiative to promote gender equality.

Women in the South Pacific have the world’s lowest participation rates in Parliament with women on average making up five percent of the entire legislature. As of 2010, the sub-region also had the distinction of containing four of the six countries worldwide that do not have any female lawmakers. Along with addressing political representation issues, Gillard said measures would be introduced to prevent violence against women, expand health centers and build shelters, particularly in rural areas.

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