Changing profile

Print edition : October 05, 2012

Hillary Clintons recent visit to the Cook Islands highlights the rising profile of the South Pacific region. The regional grouping Pacific Islands Forum attracts greater interest from world economies, and the regions countries see this as an opportunity to redefine themselves.

A handful of South Pacific island nations spread over an ocean area twice the size of Russia are seeking to change their identity. The Prime Minister of the picturesque Cook Islands, Henry Puna, urged his fellow Pacific islanders to identify themselves as Large Ocean Island States instead of Small Island Developing States. They should take a balanced view of the islands while retaining the uniqueness of the Pacific, he added. Other island leaders also felt that they should not be circumscribed by their small islands identity but should look at the vastness of the ocean and its strengths and resources.

The community of island nations in the South Pacific is attracting greater attention than before. The annual gathering of the heads of government of the Pacific islands, the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), held in the Cook Islands recently, was attended by a host of international dignitaries, including United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Some of the island states are large, some less than a few thousand square kilometres, and some others, such as Tuvalu, Kiribati and Nauru, low-lying islands. The PIF host, the Cook Islands, is a group of 15 islands with a land area less than 25 sq km and a population of about 10,000; its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) stretches over 2.2 million sq km. The Cook Islands is a self-governing parliamentary democracy in free association with New Zealand, which handles its external relations.

The PIF, earlier the South Pacific Forum, has 16 members: The Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji (stands suspended after the military coup in 2006), Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, Australia and New Zealand. The forums dialogue partners include the U.S., Canada, France, Britain, China, South Korea, Japan, the European Union (E.U.), Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and India.

China versus U.S.

Reports about Hillary Clintons possible visit to the Cook Islands had created a flurry around the islands. The Cook Islands government was forced to commandeer private SUVs in the country to make up a suitable motorcade for the most high-profile visitor in several decades. Hillary Clinton had to cut down her entourage as the tiny island was unable to provide accommodation for the large number of officials and mediapersons.

The U.S. interest in the South Pacific stems from the administrations pivot towards Asia. Speaking to the Pacific Island leaders, Hillary Clinton assured them that the U.S. was in the region for the long haul. She added that the Pacific was becoming increasingly important, strategically and economically, and tried to play down any rivalry with China in the region. Although she had stated that the Pacific was large enough for all of us, her visit to attend the post-PIF dialogue was perceived as a move to curtail the growing influence of China in the region.

Until a few years ago, the forums meetings did not attract much attention outside the region. Australian Prime Ministers occasionally chose not to attend the forums conference. The U.S. would have a token presence at the meeting. However, at the recent summit, besides the U.S. Secretary of State, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso were also present, together with senior officials from the dialogue partners. As part of the forums growing significance, PIF leaders are now scheduled to hold a meeting with the U.N. Secretary-General in New York during the General Assembly session in September.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton receives a gift from the Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna at a Pacific Islands Forum event on August 31 in Rarotonga, the Cook Islands. Hillary Clinton said that the U.S. was in the region for the long haul.-MARTY MELVILLE/AFP

The island states have been on the Chinese horizon for long. During the years of the Peoples Republic of Chinas tussle with Taiwan, which it considers a breakaway province that has to be reunited with mainland China under the One China policy, the South Pacific was the beneficiary of Chinese and Taiwanese chequebook diplomacy. Both governments sought to win over the island states, and several newly independent states switched their ties between Taipei and Beijing over the years. The struggle continued until three years ago, when Beijing and Taipei agreed to stop the game of winning over the island states.

Australias overbearing ways had led to some heartburning among several of the island countries; China is seen to be filling in the development gaps in these economies. Chinas aid to these governments makes it among the largest aid donors in the region after Australia and the U.S. As in Africa, Chinas soft loans have gone into the building of infrastructure projects such as sports complexes in Papua New Guinea and Samoa and the building of a new port in Tonga. There has been some criticism recently of the large projects funded by China as the nations struggle to repay the loans. Liberal soft loans are also creating problems of debt servicing as in the case of Tonga.

Until the 1980s, the South Pacific was an area of interest for the U.S. as it was where France carried out its nuclear tests, at the Mururoa Atoll in French Polynesia. Later the region was relegated to the background and came to be accepted as an Australian backyard. Australias bossy ways caused some ripples of resentment, leaving the ground open for Chinese incursions. Australia came to accept the Chinese presence after China became its largest trading partner.

Indias interests

India became the PIFs 12th dialogue partner in 2002 and now participates in post-forum ministerial dialogue. The South Pacific looms into view when Indias Look East policy extends further east to the Asia-Pacific region. India has had friendly ties with the Pacific states from the days of decolonisation. The presence of a substantial population of Indian origin in Fiji has retained Indias interest in the region, even though its attention to the South Pacific has been sporadic. The PIF has provided India a forum for a structured dialogue with the countries in the entire region. At the PIF meeting, Minister of State for External Affairs E. Ahamed offered $125,000 to each of the small Pacific island states. He further added that in the event of a PIF member being unable to utilise last years assistance, it could be rolled over for use in the current year in addition to this years allocation. The Minister also signed an agreement with Niue Prime Minister Toke Talagi to establish diplomatic relations with the country.

Indias Regional Assistance Initiative for the PIF is mainly based on community development projects, capacity building, training and scholarships and supply of equipment as determined by individual governments. The projects are small, such as the supply of a specialised vehicle for the disabled for the Cook Islands or office equipment for the African Caribbean Pacific-E.U. conference. India has offered aid for the renovation of hospitals and schools. A group of women from Fiji is currently in India for training at Sanjit Bunker Roys barefoot college at Tilonia in Rajasthan to become solar engineers.

In their discussions at the forum meeting, several Pacific leaders wanted Fijis suspension to be revoked as it had taken several steps towards eventual restoration of democracy. However, the consensus was that while the interim government had made progress, it needed to do more. The Pacific leaders also asked aid donors for more reliable and predictable aid schedules and sought help in curbing illegal fishing. Hillary Clinton assured them that the U.S. Navy would join the U.S. Coast Guard to help protect the Pacific countries fisheries. Hillary Clintons visit to the Cook Islands has given the region a boost and a sense of its own significance. It has moved from being a sleepy backwater to a region of higher strategic profile, maybe even an arena for international competition.

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