Report – By Henry Yamo
As the Pacific Islands Forum came to a close, the massive funding total pledged by China, United States, New Zealand and Australia as well as multinational organisations topped $1.2 billion.
It was a historic Forum meeting, with over 21 Pacific countries represented, and nine observer countries and groups. It was the first time a US Secretary of State attended the post-Forum dialogue.
On the small island of Rarotonga, in a country of less than 20,000 people, the Forum truly became a mechanism for superpowers seeking political leverage in a region that is rich with marine diversity and sea floor minerals.
While America’s surge into the Pacific through participation in the Forum is seen as a fight for dominance against growing Chinese investment, Secretary of State Clinton said the Pacific was “big enough for all of us”.
The Lowy Institute in Australia had previously revealed China has increased its loan-to-grant ratio and has pledged over $US600 million to the Pacific since 2005.
But Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai played the same straight bat as Clinton: “We are here to help island developing countries,” he said.
“If they have the same intention, I don’t expect any major difficulties in working with them.”
But the Chinese representative was less conciliatory when asked about the presence of Taiwan.
He said most Forum island countries had declared their support for the Chinese government, and had thus rejected the possibility of establishing diplomatic ties with Taiwan.
The generous funding boost has seen projects earmarked such as gender equality, thanks to Australia’s $320 million commitment, surveillance and management of fisheries with New Zealand helping with $50 million over three years, and a host of other initiatives such as alleviating the destructive impacts of climate change on Pacific Island nations.
Unlike previous years, the 43rd Forum brought more commitment from Pacific island states to conserve and carry out meaningful management of their marine resources.
The Cook Islands announced the creation of the world’s largest marine reserve, covering nearly twice the size of France.
Seven small island states signed bilateral and trilateral agreements for use of marine exclusive economic zones (EEZs), while the Marshall Islands and Palau announced a new shark sanctuary.
Silence on West Papua
Yet there was disappointment in some quarters, with Vanuatu Deputy Prime Minister Ham Lini regretting he did not have more support from the Forum leaders to respond to calls from West Papua for observer status.
Vocal groups such as Australian West Papua Association and the Indonesia Human Rights Committee seized on timely news reports by the ABC asserting the Australian-trained and funded Detachment 88 anti-terrorist troops have been deployed in West Papua and are responsible for the murder of peaceful activist Mako Tabuni.
But their calls had no bearing on most of the Pacific Leaders and as Lini said: “It’s something Vanuatu alone cannot decide on.”
As well as the Forum member countries, other notable observers at the talks were American Samoa, Timor-Leste, Tokelau, Wallis and Futuna, the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group, the Asian Development Bank, the Commonwealth Secretariat, the United Nations (UN), the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) and the World Bank.
The Forum leaders accepted the offer from the Republic of the Marshall Islands to host the Pacific Islands Forum next year.
Henry Yamo is a postgraduate student and journalist at AUT University reporting for the Pacific Media Centre.