Facing Regional Challenges & Pursuing Opportunities: Pacific Day 2012

On 23 May 2012, the Embassy of New Zealand in Washington, DC hosted the annual celebration of ideas, food and culture from the Pacific Islands region.  Photos of the event can be found on the New Zealand Embassy Facebook pagePacific Day has typically focused on getting different groups together in celebration of Pacific food and culture.  With the US turn to the Pacific and the strengthening of the Pacific Partners Initiative, Pacific Day 2012 had an equal focus on the social, political and economic issues important to the region.  The event began with a seminar moderated by Ernie Bower of the Center for Strategic and International Studies that included a keynote address by New Zealand Foreign Minister, Honorable Murray McCully.  A panel discussion addressed the impact and concerns of small states, climate and environmental issues, and the role of powers in the Pacific.  The reception featured entertainers from Australia, Hawai’i, Fiji, New Zealand and Samoa, as well as food and beverages from Australia, Hawai’i, the Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Guam, the Marshall Islands, New Zealand, Palau and Papua New Guinea.  The independent nation-states and territories from the South Pacific enjoy their differences but at different times celebrate a shared history and geography.  Other than geography, the smaller states of the Pacific face strikingly similar challenges and opportunities, hence it is beneficial for them to collaborate with states such as the US, New Zealand and Australia. 

For the major powers in the Pacific, the current outlook for the region is one of cooperative engagement and closer dialogue.  Australia, New Zealand and the US have all, in one way or another, promoted the “Pacific Century.”  As these powers seek to further engage with the Pacific, the Pacific Islands Forum will become more prominent in connecting Pacific states throughout the Asia-Pacific.  The Pacific Islands Forum meeting in Auckland in September 2011, was the first time that the three US Pacific territories – Guam, Northern Marianas and American Samoa – were granted observer status.  The focus of Pacific Day was not just on the major powers, but on examining the roles of the smaller states and the issues pertinent to the region.

In addition to the geopolitical issues that find their way into the news, Pacific nations are collaborating on pressing economic and environmental issues like sustainable fishing. In his keynote address, Hon. Murray McCully proposed that the only fisheries in the world that are not overfished are those in the South Pacific.  While China and the Philippines fight over territory and cause international incidences with fishing boats, states in the Pacific are working to connect their fisheries policies.  The South Pacific Tuna Treaty is currently being renegotiated. Pacific states are working with Australia, France, New Zealand and the US to stem illegal fishing through Operation RAI BALANG. The Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency continues to work on new and existing issues.  The World Wildlife Foundation recently praised the efforts of Parties to the Nauru Agreement with their strengthened fisheries management measures to promote sustainable fishing.  Since several Pacific Island states – with Kiribati being a leading example – rely upon the resources caught from their Exclusive Economic Zones, a major concern has been how best to ensure revenues from primary industries are spread amongst states’ residents. While several panelists offered that question, answers as to how profits might “trickle-down” were in short supply. 

Pacific Island states are also pursuing environmental and energy policies.  Kate Brown from the Global Island Partnership gave an example of how Pacific Island states are being creative in their environmental protection policies.  In Palau, a $15.00 “Green Fee” collected upon departure is used to support the country’s natural resource conservation efforts within the Protected Areas Network.  The fee was initiated in 2009, and has collected well over 2 million US dollars.   In addition to protecting the environment, improvements in sustainable energy and dealing with the effects of a changing climate remain significant.  With assistance from others, Tokelau will soon be moving from relying solely upon fossil fuels to relying upon solar power for 90% of its energy. At the UN climate talks in Durban last year, Tokelau challenged other states to follow its lead. Durwood Zaelke of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development pointed to other strategies being utilized to mitigate climate change in the Pacific: black carbon is the worst polluter in the Pacific, and innovative methods are being used to capture it; the Climate and Clean Air Coalition to Reduce Short-Lived Climate Pollutants is making headway, and there are hopes it will benefit island states in the Pacific.  Very recently, the Secretariat of the Pacific Community signed grant agreements with the Government of Australia to support work in climate change adaptation and educational assessment.  As Ms. Brown reiterated, island nations around the world are looking to the examples being set in the Pacific for environmental management as well as effective multilateral collaboration. 

Pacific nations face a range of security issues from governance to international crime and disaster relief that are best tackled through regional partnerships. As Patrizia Tumbarello from the International Monetary Fund stated, the cost of running a government in the Pacific Island region is higher than in other parts of the world due in part to their small populations. A lack of investment due to transport and infrastructure issues, reliance on diesel energy, and distance from neighbors and larger markets impede economic security and stability.  The consistent linking of Pacific Island states to Australia, New Zealand and economies in Asia adds resilience to their economic and social networks.  Tackling transnational crime and human trafficking and enhancing information sharing were the goals of US Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano’s recent trips to New Zealand and Australia; in New Zealand, Secretary Napolitano signed a Joint Statement on Combating Trafficking in Persons in the Pacific Islands Region with Immigration Minister Nathan Guy, and signed a Joint Statement to Strengthen Border Security, Combat Transnational Organized Crime, and Facilitate Legitimate Trade and Travel with Customs Minister Maurice Williamson.  In addition, development aid, disease prevention and disaster management go hand in hand with economic and more traditional security issues.  Australia provides half of all global Official Development Assistance (ODA) to Papua New Guinea and Pacific island states, representing almost 25 per cent of total Australian ODA; similarly, over half of all New Zealand’s total development aid is provided to its neighbors in the Pacific.  Taken holistically, the security of the Pacific island states cannot be guaranteed on their own.  As CSIS Non-resident Fellow Eddie Walsh mentioned in his briefing, Pacific states must be part of the greater Asia-Pacific in their economic, security and political networks.

The guests in attendance at Pacific Day 2012 – like the nations they represented – had an interest or even a stake in the prosperity of the Pacific.  Diplomats, representatives of nonprofits and corporations, scholars, journalists, students and members of the public attended the festive affair focused on celebrating all things Pacific and promoting cooperation amongst neighbors.  The nation-states of the Pacific maintain unique economic, political and social structures; yet because of their small size and geographic location they understand the significance of multilateral institutions such as the Pacific Islands Forum and the need to collaborate with Western regional powers Australia, New Zealand and the United States and Asian powers like China.  In a recent statement, the Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat proclaimed that “Pacific countries cannot be left isolated from regional economic integration initiatives in the Asia-Pacific region.”  Mutual advances toward sustainable fisheries, development, and economic, human and physical security, may lead to a more prosperous Asia-Pacific region. 

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NATO’s Enduring Alliance

The highly anticipated twenty-fifth North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit began May 20 in Chicago; most of the NATO member states are facing defense budget cuts, their publics have grown tired of the war in Afghanistan, and some are worrying about NATO inevitably becoming militarily irrelevant.  In an election year, the Obama Administration wants to look strong on defense while leading the alliance to a reasonable exit from Afghanistan.  Despite the Administration’s policy ‘turn’ to the Asia-Pacific, NATO remains a formidable alliance structure unlike any other.  While not all 28 members may pull their weight (only two states follow the mandate that defense budgets be 2% of GDP), the collective defense alliance remains a pertinent force that states in East Asia and the Pacific were never able to replicate.  Smart Defense and the institution of missile defense capability have been achievements outside of the ISAF operation in Afghanistan.

In Lisbon in 2010 NATO leaders agreed to develop a missile defense capability, and that concept has now come to fruition.  In Chicago, leaders announced that they have achieved an interim missile defense capability. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen stated “Our system will link together missile defense assets from different Allies – satellites, ships, radars and interceptors – under NATO command and control. It will allow us to defend against threats from outside the Euro-Atlantic area.”  The controversial capability has added tension to the Russia-NATO relationship, but NATO has not left any room to back down. 

Planning for the next decade, NATO leaders seek to “embrace a new culture of cooperation”.  ‘Smart Defense’ is the buzz word for the Obama Administration and NATO member states.  More than 20 multinational projects gained approval ‘at an affordable price’- a sign that members still want to continue to develop and protect the alliance.  As would be expected, leaders agreed to boost military exercises, training and education.  According to the NATO Secretary General, 

 “Our goal is NATO Forces 2020 – an Alliance that deals with today’s economic challenges, and is prepared for the security challenges of the future. These decisions show that despite the economic challenges, Allies are committed to acquire, develop and maintain the capabilities and the skills we need to ensure that our Alliance remains fit for purpose and fit for the future.”

The forward-looking nature of discussions illustrates that member states see the benefit of maintaining a strong and cohesive structure and scope.  While NATO assists with anti-piracy in the Gulf of Aden, intervened in Libya and participated in a training mission in Iraq, it is important that NATO does not get overstretched or over-utilized in conflicts around the globe (that are not related to Article 5 of the Treaty).  The collective defense treaty should not get confused with international peacekeeping or policing forces; given that NATO member states do not explicitly seek expansion of activities much outside of their realm, regional powers in Asia have no cause for concern regarding the missile defense or smart defense initiatives.  Furthermore, NATO member states will be relieved that they are not being coerced into the Obama Administration’s overt Pacific turn.

Passport to National Imaginaries: a Tourism DC Event

Each year in Washington, DC, dozens of embassies open their doors to the public as part of the Cultural Tourism DC event Passport DC.  Of course, no passport is needed to explore each of the embassies – but a mock ‘passport’ is supplied and volunteers offer to ‘stamp your passport’ at each destination. Each embassy proffers a national identity fashioned out of a constellation of cuisine, culture, geography, fauna and flora. Each embassy presents an image of their national history, culture and current endeavors as part of the international community. At the same time each embassy is impelled to direct guests through security, including the metal detectors and bag checks that have become a part of life for international travelers and border commuters, and point to the anxieties of our age. On Saturday, May 26, 2012 I participated in Passport DC by traveling to 5 diverse embassies including Australia, Kazakhstan, Mozambique, Montenegro and Indonesia. As one would expect on such a day, each embassy I visited selected cultural symbols to reflect their respective states; this post briefly discusses features of the embassies I visited.

Australians at Home and Abroad

The Australian embassy brought together indigenous culture, representations of their foreign military service and exports as facets of Australia’s identity. After going through a metal detector and bag check, the first representation of Australia was a man dressed and painted in Aborigine style, holding a didgeridoo and discussing the different types of boomerangs. Further along, there was a table set up for children to paint Aborigine-style art. 

Photo credit: Genevieve Neilson

While aspects of the rich culture of Australia’s indigenous peoples are often featured in Australia’s tourism material, it is interesting to note that Aborigine groups have their own embassy – the Aborigine tent embassy – set up on the lawn of Australia’s Parliament House in Canberra to represent their feeling of alienation within their home country. Aborigines were subject to similar treatment as Native Americans and are still largely relegated to marginalized communities even though they hold a central place in how tourists imagine Australia.

Photo credit: Genevieve Neilson

Along one side of the embassy was a gallery of images of the Australian commitment to ANZUS, an exhibit of photos from the war in Afghanistan.  Uniformed Australian military personnel staffed an information table and told me about how thrilled Australians were when US President Barack Obama visited the country last year.  Obama had announced the posting of 200-250 marines in Australia’s northern coastal city of Darwin amid discussions of the US turn to the Pacific and comments about a rising China.

Next there was a wine and cheese tasting, under the starry Southern Hemisphere’s night sky, which was displayed on the embassy ceiling. Australia’s wine industry gained a big foothold in the US and other overseas markets, and is definitely more popular abroad than the Vegemite which was also on offer. The Australian wine industry has weathered booms and busts due to differing grape yields and shifts in international currencies. Australian wine regions have also become a draw for travelers; although when I asked a travel agent posted at the embassy what there is to see and do in Perth since I plan to travel there later this year, she disappointingly told me that there was nothing to do in Perth; however, I could travel about an hour north to see some dolphins. I guess I’ll have to see for myself.

Oil and Chocolate in Central Asia

The Embassy of Kazakhstan was a more subdued experience compared to the Australian embassy, with pictures and artifacts portraying a country on the move but still valuing its heritage.  Two Kazak embassy personnel staffed a long table displaying postcards, brochures, tourism books, investment magazines and the book The Kazakhstan Way by President Nursultan Nazarbayev (who was the leader of Kazakhstan during its Soviet era and holds the same office today) all complimentary to visitors. I picked up President Nazarbayev’s book, but I am yet to brave its 329 pages, complete with a forward by Margaret Thatcher.  The materials sparked questions by visitors about traveling to and through the country with the Trans-Siberian railroad, and what sort of industries are most profitable.

Photo credit: Genevieve Neilson

Kazakhstan expects to join the World Trade Organization this year. It occupies an important geographical position between Russia and China, and it has been trying to break free from its ‘Dutch disease’ (an economic overreliance on extraction and oil industries). The items on the table most sought after by visitors, however, were the bars of Kazak chocolate.  We were told that the chocolate is not a major export product from Kazakhstan – the cocoa is likely imported from Africa – but it reminds the embassy staff of home. I was told that “everyone in Kazakhstan loves this chocolate”. 

Africa Open for Business

I intended to visit the Embassy of Botswana next, but I was deterred by the perpetually long line.  Instead, I toured the Embassy of Mozambique.  Emphasizing “Mozambique is open for business”, the embassy displayed carvings, costumes, artwork and tourism posters, and selected jewelry was also offered for sale.  Hand-made posters and the small building were evidence that the Mozambique Embassy was not running on a large budget, and that the country was not as wealthy or developed as some of its neighbors along embassy row. While Mozambique managed a reputable 7.2 percent growth rate in 2011, the nation-state is still mired in poverty and relies heavily on aluminum exports and subsistence agriculture. However their nationalism and desire to put forward a friendly, welcoming image was still just as strong as the other embassies. 

Photo credit: Genevieve Neilson
Photo credit: Genevieve Neilson

 After Mozambique, I had an even shorter stay at the Embassy of Montenegro.  Staff led visitors upstairs to a large room where we watched a tourism video advertising hotels and places to visit in Montenegro.  After several minutes of the video, once it had become a reel of hotel advertisements, I excused myself.  The embassy itself was in a multi-story house, with more gold and elaborate chandeliers compared to the Mozambique embassy.  However the staff and atmosphere drew my spirits down leaving me less than enthused about a visit Montenegro.

As the Mozambique embassy’s colored card poster pointed out, Africa is “open for business.” As much of Africa still stands at the margins of international trade, it is quickly becoming the latest frontier for international investment, especially for China. Africa’s most sought after natural resources have been the focus for business men from the continent and abroad for some time, but it is likely that the populations of Africa’s nations will be drawn into more sustained production of commodities over the coming years.

Representing an Affluent Indonesia

My last stop for Passport DC was the Embassy of Indonesia.  After getting through the security line and up the steps, the grandness of the entrance felt like I was on location for a film set in colonial Southeast Asia.    With 6.5 percent growth in GDP in 2011 and continuous flows of FDI ($19.3 billion last year) Indonesia has been making headlines lately for its impending economic might.  Indonesia was one of the countries worst hit by the 1997 Asian financial crisis and recent economic gains from which some Indonesians are profiting need to be understood against this not so distant crisis that also followed sharp gains in the 1990s.

Photo credit: Genevieve Neilson

The embassy was grand but any economic prowess did not overshadow the warmth of the staff and the significance of the different Indonesian cultures to the state.  Indonesia is an archipelago with around 6000 inhabited islands, 300 native ethnicities and 742 dialects. The country was demarcated under Dutch colonial rule and has since experienced ongoing separatist conflicts against the government, based in the capital Jakarta on the island of Java. In the embassy one of the rooms had display cases and shelves full of dolls dressed in traditional Indonesian fashion, separated by different regions and cultures, alongside handicrafts and works of art.  A band played earlier in the afternoon, in addition to martial arts and dance exhibitions. Outside, they served Indonesian coffee – a crop brought to Indonesia by the Dutch East India Company – and offered sculptures and crafts for sale. 

As Charles Tilly famously noted, writing about the European context, the “state-making process minimized the cultural variation within states and maximized the variation among states.”  Embassies involved in Passport DC attempt to present cohesive national images and, in so doing, also place themselves within the community of nation-states. Passport DC is an enlightening experience, made more so by delving below the national images to see the patchworks that constitute these modern nations and that threaten to unravel national cohesion at the seams.