The World’s Gaze Turns to the South Pacific

Recent Features

Features | Environment | Politics | Oceania

The World’s Gaze Turns to the South Pacific

With the world’s great powers calling, factionalism is increasingly present among island nations of the Pacific. It could be trouble.

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.

Importantly, fiscal mechanisms were also put in place to help island states cope financially with the impact of climate change.

Tuvalu, at its highest point, is just 4.6 meters above sea level and this is typical of many islands within the PIF sphere of influence.

But it was the political front that stole the lion’s share of the spotlight.

New Zealand has just completed its year as chair of the PIF. In handing over the Chair to the Cook Islands, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key was adamant that the forum had flourished over the past year by taking a united stand on the international stage.

“The united Pacific front we have been able to present …amplifies our voice in putting specific issues squarely on the international agenda,” he said as part of an upbeat assessment of his country’s year at the helm despite the realities on the ground that paint a much different political and diplomatic picture.

For the wider world the PIF can command a strategically important bloc of votes at the United Nations, which makes it an alluring target for countries seeking support for their particular agendas. This includes the countries vying for one of the five non-permanent seats on the U.N. Security Council at a vote that will be held in about six weeks.

Winning friends, however, is an expensive business and no nation has been more eager to win friends in the Pacific over recent years than Russia, which was notably absent from the summit and politely ignored in speeches by the likes of Mrs. Clinton and Ms. Gillard.

Insiders told The Diplomat that Moscow had sent “a demand” for an invitation to this year’s meeting but decided to stay away after realizing it would be lumped under the category of “attending” countries alongside Taiwan as opposed to being a full “dialogue partner,” a status enjoyed by the likes of the U.S., China, and even Britain.

“Russia is getting engaged in the Pacific because like the two other major powers U.S. and China, they are all ‘pivoting” into the Pacific and want to shadow each others’ moves,” Ben Sims, Research Associate at the Pacific Institute of Public Policy, told The Diplomat.

“Note that Russia is hosting the APEC summit in coming weeks in Vladivostok, on its Pacific coast,” he said of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) group.

Importantly, he also said Russia was courting islands to help recognize breakaway Caucus states — such as Abkhazia, which is recognized by Vanuatu, Tuvalu and Nauru — garner future U.N. votes, and probably look for resources and potential navy bases.

“Fiji and Vanuatu are two particular countries it is courting.”

For tiny Nauru, establishing diplomatic relations with South Ossetia and Abkhazia earned them a US$50 million assistance package from Moscow in 2009. The money has also flowed to Tuvalu since the world’s third least populated nation also recognized Russia’s troubled neighbors last year.

The PIF is also split over the recognition of Taiwan, however, as China has attained a degree of respectability within the forum through targeted aid, including a joint venture with New Zealand to provide the Cook Islands and its 11,000 people with clean water.

“This push also makes the forum less about its stated theme — Large Ocean Island States the Pacific Challenge — and more about nations shoring up recognition, in the case of China/Taiwan and Russia,” Sims said.

Russian-sponsored “assistance packages” not only legitimizes Fiji’s dictatorship and destabilizes Vanuatu’s government, but also comes at the expense of compromised foreign policies among the PIF.

That’s not to say that legitimate development assistance is not welcomed. Most PIF countries need sustainable aid from international partners like the U.S. $32 million offered by Clinton, which was primarily linked to climate change.

But “the Dutch auction”, as one long time observer put it, also comes amid other divisions within the Pacific ranks which is factionalizing and priming members for outside interference.

This became evident after a meeting of the Smaller Island States (SIS) which encompasses the Cook Islands, Kiribati, Nauru, Niue, Palau, Republic of the Marshall Islands and Tuvalu.

Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna said the SIS would use its collective vote to support issues of mutual interest, particularly climate change, effectively acting as a sub-group within the forum.

A further layer has been added to PIF factionalism by Fiji, which was suspended by the PIF in 2009 at the behest of Australia and New Zealand in response to the 2006 coup.

Readmission is dependent upon holding democratic elections by 2014. However, Fiji has thrived despite its pariah status and built bilateral relations with countries outside its traditional sphere of influence through the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG).

The MSG is being viewed as a pre-cursor to the Pacific Islands Development Forum (PIDF) which one senior diplomat here said would compete directly with the PIF in direct opposition to regional and PIF political heavyweights Australia and New Zealand.

In addition, independence movements in French Polynesia and to a lesser extent New Caledonia, are in the ascendancy causing consternation among their colonial masters in Paris and further concern over shifting Pacific alliances in Canberra and Wellington.

This was highlighted in the official end of summit communiqué with leaders again supporting the French territory’s right to self-determination but this time, following last year’s election of Oscar Temaru as President, diplomats said this would be a major regional issue going forward.

“I think that the international push into the Pacific is a sign of an increasingly multi-polar world, where new powers are challenging the traditional geopolitical structures of the region,” Sims said.

As such he said the Pacific needs to assert itself but not passively bend to “all the demands of new actors pushing for their own self-interest.”

Over the long-term it is only the Pacific states themselves which will suffer from this kind of factionalism and independent deals that are dictated by the highest bidders. What is needed is frank and open dialogue on a united foreign policy that could deliver the PIF real clout on an international stage that can always do with a bit more honesty.