Report – By Henry Yamo
While “Large Ocean-Island States – the Pacific challenge” is the theme for next week’s 43nd Pacific Islands Forum in the Cook Islands, the region’s two key powers, China and the United States, will be jockeying for supremacy.
When Prime Minister Henry Puna spoke on behalf of the Cook Islands while expressing gratitude as the host nation, he said the theme was coined with a focus on greater balance in the inter-relationship between the Pacific Islands nations and their large ocean realm.
“We should recognise our national and regional initiatives and act with pride and determination to secure the future we want for our people and region,” he said.
He said the Forum presented an ideal opportunity for leaders to build on positions adopted at the 42nd gathering in Auckland last year as they moved forward in promoting sustainable development through both national and regional initiatives.
“Just as the sea is an open and ever flowing reality, so should our identity transcend all form of insularity, to become one that is openly searching, inventive and welcoming,” he said.
“Apart from the strong commitments made to progress as a region we need to take this step further, reaffirm our collective regional identity and ensure the world sees our potential as large ocean-island states.”
Puna said his call for a united regional identity as “large ocean island states” was not a new one but was now needed more than ever.
“We have both the opportunity and the obligation to our people to take action as a region to set a place a ‘roadmap’ or plan to build on positive outcomes.”
In reaffirming their identity as large ocean-island states, the leaders would be able to build on the potential inherent in the “inter-relationship between our islands and the ocean to promote sustainable development through our own initiatives as well as attracting global interest, investments and initiatives to our region.”
Similar sentiments were also expressed by the Pacific Islands Forum Secretary-General, Tuiloma Neroni Slade, at the Pacific ACP Officials’ meeting last month in Suva, Fiji.
“The current focus of the Pacific would be on regional economic integration and the sustainable development of our natural resources and environment among others,” he said.
Tuiloma said this should help the region identify specific ways in which Pacific nations could build capacity, and overcome isolation and vulnerabilities through support from development partners.
As regional and global organisations, including development partners, prepared for the Forum, China and the United States had already shown greater enthusiasm in participating.
Radio Australia has reported that the interest displayed by both countries is more a “battle for supremacy” in the Pacific, with both China and the US preparing to send powerful delegations.
The US contingent in Auckland last year was led by Deputy Secretary of State Thomas Nides, while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is reported to be the likely high government official who will lead the US contingent to the Cook Islands.
Commentators consider that the US decision to include Clinton demonstrates strongly to Beijing that Washington is willing to increase participation in the South Pacific.
The question is does the involvement of Clinton signify a higher level of developmental contribution and participation in the pacific by America?
It has been reported that the attendance of both China and the US in the Forum should be interesting.
However, most Pacific Island countries have benefited greatly from Chinese government loans which have seen important and fundamental development assistance work progressing in countries like Papua New Guinea, Samoa.
Pacnews reported that Pacific leaders, including the Prime Minister of Samoa, Tuilaepa Lupesoliai Sailele, say that China was brought into the Pacific to fill the developmental gap that could not be filled by other development partners, including Australia and New Zealand.
In an open letter to Pacific leaders, the secretary for the Australia West Papua Association (AWPA), Joe Collins, has asked leaders to consider the West Papua issue in their discussions.
Among other issues raised in the letter published by Pacific Scoop, Collins has requested observer status to be granted to genuine representatives of the Melanesian people of West Papua who are struggling for their right to self-determination.
He said in light of the ongoing human rights abuses in West Papua, AWPA urges the PIF leaders to discuss the human rights situation in West Papua and raise it with the Indonesian President.
Collins said the people of West Papua believed the time was right to bring representatives of the Melanesian people of Papua back into the Pacific community because the issue of West Papua would not disappear and should be of great concern to the Forum.
He said the PIF should pressure Jakarta to resolve West Papuans’ issues of concern, otherwise there would be increasing conflict in West Papua which could affect the region.
According Papua New Guinean media reports, discussions during the Forum leaders meetings would include reviewing the PIF Secretariat, progress of the implementation of the Pacific Plan, transnational security issues – including Fij – and the scaling down of the Regional Assistance Missions to Solomon Islands (RAMSI), gender and environmental issues.
However, whether West Papua would be part of the discussions is anybody’s guess and it is not quite clear whether it would be part of the discussions.
The media also reported that PNG Prime Minister Peter O’Neill would be attending the Forum, accompanied by the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Immigration, Rimbink Pato, and National Planning Minister Charles Abel, as well as other senior government officials.
About 500 people from 57 countries are expected at the Forum.
Security in the Cook Island has been boosted with the involvement of specialist New Zealand police to assist with drawing up a security plan before the arrival of the Pacific leaders.
According to Radio New Zealand, Cook Islands police say all venues to be used by the leaders will be searched by police, cleared and locked down until the leaders’ arrival.
Other necessary measures include training of chauffeurs for the official motorcade during the opening next Wednesday.
Henry Yamo is a postgraduate journalist from Papua New Guinea on the Master of Communication Studies programme at the Auckland University of Technology. He will be reporting on the Forum with the support of the Cook Islands News.