Sunday, July 21, 2024

Island Issues

South Pacific: Islanders Await Hillary Clinton at Pacific Islands Forum

The government of the tiny Cook Islands is busy preparing for an unusually high-ranking guest at this week’s Pacific Islands Forum – including having to borrow SUVs from residents.

(Rarotonga image from

With 15 diverse member states scattered over the vast South Pacific, the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) always poses an organizational challenge, but next month’s meeting has thrown the hosting nation into a frenzy. Amid rising East/West tensions over who will dominate the region, the United States is reportedly sending Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to attend the meeting, which is being held in the Cook Islands on the main island of Rarotonga.

It’s been more than four decades since the Cook Islands was graced with a visiting dignitary that required quite as much preparation as Sec. State Clinton – in 1974, when Queen Elizabeth II made a Commonwealth visit to the Cooks. According to media reports, preparing for the visit has taxed the resources of the tiny island chain. The government has scrambled to find enough SUVs and high-end cars for all of the visiting heads of state – after cleaning out Rarotonga’s car rental firms, it has been forced to borrow cars from local residents.

Just how small is the nation of the Cook Islands? A mere 20,000 people were recorded in the county’s last census, and with a population of 5,445, the capital city and seat of government, Avarua, is just slightly bigger than an average Western village. On top of Sec. State Clinton, the Cooks must also make arrangements for the heads of the 15 member states, including Prime Ministers Julia Gillard of Australia and  John Key of New Zealand – although they may be a little more used to roughing it.

The PIF kicked off on August 28th with a traditional music performance by local schoolchildren, as PM Gillard was carried into the auditorium on a ceremonial chair hoisted by young men in traditional dress. Despite the festive start, this year’s forum carries with it a profound importance and a number of agendas being promoted. While Australia and New Zealand are the economic powerhouses of the region, the PIF is the opportunity for the small Pacific states to band together and have their voices be heard.

The focus of these states is on climate change – and the relief funding to combat its effects that they expect from the larger countries. Once a major issue for the industrial West, in recent months there has been a noticeable distancing from the topic of climate change by large world powers. A prominent example was the choice of the RIO 2012 Earth Summit to focus on “sustainable development” and family planning instead of dire warnings about rising seas and global warming.

(The main street in Avarua)

Perhaps in an effort to bring renewed interest to the subject, the Prime Minister of the Cook Islands, Henry Puna, announced on Tuesday the creation of the world’s largest contiguous marine park at 1.065 million square kilometres. Taking up the entire southern half of the country’s waters, the area is roughly twice as large as France. Australia’s own recently-announced marine park was significantly larger, but in isolated pockets, rather than a continuous stretch of sea. Other Pacific countries, like New Caledonia, have announced they will follow suit.

As for the large powers, their own agendas were made clear at the start of the PIF. PM Gillard said that gender equality and female political participation would be top priorities for her: “Gender equality matters because it’s one of the keys to unlocking development,” she said. PM Keys of New Zealand will be focussing on sustainable development initiatives, particularly with regards to clean energy and fishing.

As for Sec. State Clinton, the American motives for her attendance are far from a mystery. With the announcement last year that the U.S. would be dramatically ramping up its military presence in Northern Australia, the global superpower made it clear that the South Pacific was its area of “strategic interest”, sending a strong message to China. For most of the small island states, however, such geopolitical concerns are of little significance – but a visit from Clinton will go a long way towards putting their own issues on the map.

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