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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