We're working with you to make a positive impact in the Pacific Islands from our home base at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, U.K.
Remarks by Mr. Solo Mara
Republic of Fiji High Commission to the United Kingdom
Spring Ambassador Speaking Series
Pacific Islands Society at SOAS
School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS)
March 5, 2013
I am pleased to speak to you this evening on the future of traditional and non-traditional security in the Pacific Islands. I am sure that many of you are familiar with the Pacific Islands region; few in the general population know much more than the information featured in tourism literature, and many from outside my region have no desire to look much further beyond those images of tropical idyll. However, with fourteen votes in the UN and rich marine resources, the Pacific region has a voice on the global stage. A voice that is beginning to be recognised, first in the name change of the UN Asian Group to Aisa-Pacific and Fiji’s current Chairmanship of the G77+China. Its internal security, and international security, are of growing interest outside the region; to scholars, such as yourselves, to politicians, and to business. Some commentators have suggested that the Pacific Islands region is a new geo-strategic political pitch for the super-powers, particularly China and the United States.
A Snapshot of the Region
The Pacific Island region is defined by more than the wide expanse of the Pacific Ocean; there is a rich bio-diversity of fish stock, and untapped underwater mineral deposits. The small Pacific Island Countries vary greatly in terms of natural resources and population; the total population of the region is relatively small. The region’s total population is about 7 million, and half of these are in PNG.
Selected statistics will give you a snapshot of the Pacific Islands region. First, the combined total land area of the 14 Pacific Island Countries [PICs], namely Cook Is., Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Niue, Palau, PNG, Marshall Is., Samoa, Solomon Is., Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu, is 526,724 sq km [which is bigger than Spain, and a little smaller than France].
One of the most significant assets of the Pacific Island Countries is the size of their combined Exclusive Economic Zone, or EEZ- which amounts to 19,927,900 sq km. This is slightly greater than the combined land mass of the USA and Canada. The World Bank’s statistics suggest that this important asset is not being used to its full potential however, as the total combined GDP value of the 14 PICs is US$ 20 billion. In contrast, New Zealand’s GDP, at US$ 142.48 billion, is 7 times bigger. The most prosperous Pacific Island Country, measured in GDP per capita, is Palau, at US$ 8,730; whilst the least prosperous is the Solomon Islands at US$ 1,517.
These statistics put into perspective the factors that define the Pacific Islands concept of security, whether it be economic, geographical or political in nature. The Pacific Islands region, vulnerable in terms of its small size and relatively low level of development, yet possessing enormous untapped resources and a youthful population that can be educated for the global knowledge economy, is bordered by the world’s superpowers. These larger nations, including the US, Russia, and China, all take considerable interest in what’s developing in this region.
Different Views of Security Threats
If I were to ask the room this evening to suggest 3 issues that you would consider to be significant threats to security in the Pacific Islands, it is likely that your collective list would be dominated by traditional security issues, such as superpower rivalry, terrorism, people smuggling, drug trafficking, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, cyber-crime, and internet fraud…
Were I to, at the same time, ask a group of Pacific Islanders which three threats to security are most pressing, I am sure that their answers would differ to yours. This does not mean that the traditional threats you are likely to have mentioned do not feature or are unimportant; the Pacific Islands region does face, and manage, traditional threats to its security. The active participation of the Pacific Small Island Developing States within the UN framework, and the positions we have taken on those issues in the global arena, are proof of our regional concerns relating to traditional security threats.
A group of your peers in the Pacific Islands might agree with your assessment of security threats in general, and over the long-term, and might note that the issues that dominate western thinking on security are most relevant to large, developed states in the short-term. They would likely localise the discussion of “security”. “Security”, as considered from the perspective of the governments on coral atolls or volcanic islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, features a wide mixture of issues. Some of those factors, that I will now discuss, will be familiar to you, whilst others have not yet been considered widely outside the Pacific Islands region.
Traditional Security Threats
The Pacific regional security environment, which for simplicity’s sake I will consider since the early 1970s, when most of the PICs were gaining independence, has become increasingly complex and diverse. It has faced, and continues to be challenged by, traditional threats to security, including an increase in various types of transnational organised crime, internal conflicts and crises, which have threatened the stability of governments; the ever-present global threat of terrorism; governance challenges; and limited legal and law enforcement resources and capacity.
Consistent with global trends, transnational criminal activity has increased in the region. The emergence of a globalised economy, a huge growth in international trade, greater mobility of people and services, and advances in communications and information technologies have resulted in the Pacific region being more prone to the presence and activities of criminals and crime syndicates. Transnational crime includes the illegal movement of people, narcotics, wildlife and goods, as well as illicit financial transactions linked to money laundering.
Resources to address these security challenges are limited, and challenges are great. The limited resources that Pacific Islands Countries have are good resources; by and large, the Pacific’s human resources are well-trained and supported by many generous international partners. But resources are limited in number and in support.
Furthermore numerous instances of violent conflict, civil unrest, and political crisis have had serious consequences for internal stability and sustainable development in a number of Pacific Island Countries. Stability is absolutely essential if gains are to be made in education and in health to support economic growth. The reactions of development partners to internal security issues have varied widely, and this has had an impact on donor relations with Pacific Island Countries.
Traditional security threats described above are being managed by the Pacific Island Countries within existing regional infrastructure, which includes several regional agencies. Given the region’s geopolitical importance, many donor countries are also involved in regional discussions of and management of security threats.
The regional security framework, which was developed by the region’s leaders as part of the mandate of the Pacific Islands Forum, and has been revised and enlarged over time, was primarily designed to ensure the cooperation of national law enforcement authorities with each other and to ensure a standard regional approach to security activities.
Significant security instruments, all of which continue to be used as the basis for discussions and decisions of a regional nature, include the 1992 Honiara Declaration on Law Enforcement Cooperation, the 1997 Aitutaki Declaration on Regional Security Cooperation, the 2000 Biketawa Declaration, which relates to regional crisis management and conflict resolution initiatives.
Non-Traditional Security Threats
It is crucial however to consider other new and emerging threats to security; these are the threats that occupy the thinking of your peers in the South Pacific. Non-traditional security issues, the most prominent of which is Climate Change, are dominating the agenda of governments of the Pacific Island region; resources are being spread thinly- perhaps too thinly- according to need.
The priority security issue in most Pacific Island countries now is human security. The most prominent amongst these is the impacts of Climate Change on the continuing existence of Pacific Island societies in their current form and environment. Climate change threatens human security in the Pacific now- not in the next few decades, or ten years, but now.
Society and livelihoods are under threat, a threat that is so large and seemingly interminable that it is proving extremely difficult to manage. However, there are other threats to human security that are also competing for the attention and very limited funds available to Pacific Island governments.
Pacific island countries are bearing the brunt of the impacts of Climate Change. The tidal surges that are engulfing atoll nations such as Kiribati and Tuvalu are having an immediate impact on their livelihoods. Climate change will continue to impact on all aspects of Pacific life – the health of the oceans, including acidification and cleanliness, and the availability of fish in the sea; changing patterns of agricultural production and access to fresh water; and rising sea levels. The region is acting collectively to effectively make its voice heard by the international community. But it will certainly need the support of- and funding from- the international community to find ways to adapt to the impacts of climate change. I applaude the EU for having provided eight million euros for a five-year research and adaptation project, working in fourteen countries, to conduct research on Climate Change, equip communities with knowledge and practical tools for adaptation, and train young Pacific Islanders to postgraduate level, so that the region has the human resourced required to formulate effective and enlightened policies.
The PSIDS Group in New York attempted, with the support of some EU countries, to place Climate Change on the agenda of the UNSC in 2012, but failed due to strong lobbying from some members of the UNSC.
Further impact of Climate Change is also evident on the fisheries resources that in some instances provide the only income to some island countries. Changes in sea temperatures have been reported to have forced the migration of marine life away from its natural grounds and have negatively impacted the growth and development of many marine creatures.
Given the huge EEZ of the Pacific Island region, illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing fleets are taking much-needed income from the region and are also proved to be linked to other traditional security threats, such as people smuggling and drugs and weapons trafficking.
Health – HIV/AIDS and NCDs
Another relevant non-traditional security issue for the PICs can be found in the Health Sector. The spread of HIV and the rising incidence of NCDs, such as diabetes and strokes, are two threats to human security that are of increasing concern to Pacific Island Countries. These feature very prominently on government agendas primarily because very limited funds must be diverted to address these issues, both of which have a sustained negative impact on productive labour resources.
Who Determines Which Security Threats are Addressed?
It is clear that the variety of threats to security is staggering. And resources are limited- I refer not just to limited funds, but to limited human resources to implement policies and carry out projects. Pacific Islands need to have the space and support to prioritize for themselves which security issue in their own region need to be addressed.
Pacific Islanders have their own view of security threats and needs; their development partners, interested neighbours, and metropolitan powers interested in the region have another. Like Japan’s renewable [solar] energy assistance programme currently being rolled out in rural Pacific communities. As much as is possible, there needs to be a meeting of the minds to deliver outcomes that will benefit the human security of Pacific Islanders whilst supporting a stable and crime-free region.
The regional security agenda has changed over time. An examination of the regional security agenda discussed within regional organisations like the Pacific Islands Forum some ten years ago reveals that issues such as the development of legislation on aviation and maritime security, law and order training and the ratification and implementation of international and regional human rights and security related conventions dominated the agendas.
Whilst these may have been important to some developed members like Australia and NZ, they did not necessarily address the development needs of the PICs. This often led to accusations being levelled against Australia and NZ, and suggestions that they pursued a self-serving security agenda with relation to the Pacific Island countries. The example of Australia’s Pacific Solution to the issue of the illegal “boat people” migration from Indonesia comes to mind.
More recent discussions on regional security vary considerably in their focus. Non-traditional security issues, such as Climate Change, are still being viewed from the perception of the metropolitan powers, however, and do not address the needs of the Pacific Islands. There is a general perception, amongst Pacific Island peoples, that their immediate development needs are not being addressed in favour of longer-term human security issues. There is growing dissatisfaction over the lack of infrastructural development and the provision of basic public services like health, water, education. And when one adds growing unemployment figures, rising costs of food and their corresponding negative impacts on living standards, the result can be worrying. The 2006 riots in Tonga and Solomon Islands were said to be indicative of the growing frustrations of the population with the lack of tangible benefits from development on the islands.
It is a common assumption that, in this day of globalisation and modern information technology, we share the same understanding of important issues like security. This is believed to be particularly true when we are speaking in terms of geographical proximity. That is a common misconception- there is a marked difference in viewpoints between the PICs and its more affluent Pacific neighbours. This misconception often leads to the “misunderstandings” that have marred the partnerships between the PICs and neighbouring metropolitan powers. Some have even argued that it has led to increasing engagement with China, India, Indonesia, and Malaysia.
How Security Concerns have contributed to the Pacific’s Closer Relations with China
To most Pacific Island leaders, adopting a “Look North” policy anchored on improved and closer relations with China was an inevitable progression. PICs have for years been warned by metropolitan neighbours of China’s “questionable security intent” in the region.
However, after three decades of interacting with the Chinese leadership, marked by high level visits to China by Pacific Island leaders, Pacific Island Countries have come to recognise in China a valuable and sincere development partner. The then Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visited Fiji in 2006 and held a meeting with 10 other PICs leaders in a development-focused meeting aimed at strengthening the “China-PICs Cooperative Partnership” in all sectors of development.
China stepped in when other western development partners, such as the US and the UK, withdrew. Australia did not adequately fill the vacuum that was created- or one can say that they did not do it as effectively as the Chinese.
The increasing involvement of both China and the US in the region is hard to ignore. It seems that Washington has ramped up its presence and involvement in response to China’s increasing activities and influence. The attendance of the US Secretary of State at the PIF Leaders Meeting in 2012- never before had such a high-ranking American official visited the region- was a clear confirmation of Washington’s realization that it must be more involved in the Pacific Islands or risk losing its influence entirely. It is interesting that Mrs Clinton was beaten to the islands by a multitude of senior Chinese Government officials- including Xi Jinping, who will assume China’s presidency this month.
To Pacific Islanders this renewed interest by the US is welcomed. China is also a valuable “development partner” that has demonstrated its active support in addressing non-traditional security issues. Access to the Chinese Exim Bank loans is providing much needed infrastructure development for economic development in the islands. And China is trading more with the region and contributing to economic growth in the process.
But one lesson that the PICs have learnt from its engagement with China, India, Indonesia in its “look north policy” is the importance of the word partnership. Particularly, partnership based on mutual respect, which was evidently lacking at the 2007 meeting of Pacific Island leaders with the than US Secretary of State , Ms Condoleezza Rice in Washington, where she was reported “to have appeared only for a 10 minutes photo opportunity” with Pacific Island leaders who have travelled thousands of miles for that meeting. The changes in five years- from that photo opportunity to Mrs Clinton’s trip to Rarotonga- are quite remarkable.
Bridging the difference in the perception of security threats is fundamental to effectively ensuring the future security of the Pacific Islands. The Pacific Islands region must accept that the interests of its donors and superpowers will at times dictate what security activities they prioritize and fund. However, interested foreign “development partners” must engage from a position of respect and understanding with Pacific Island Countries, and realize that they will always need to prioritize human security, as limited funds mean that the most pressing issues must be addressed. Once Western countries understand this, they will understand why the Pacific Islands have sought closer ties with Asia in their pursuit of “security” in the Pacific Island sense.
The Pacific Islands region will do well to engage productively with both superpowers. The US and China to Pacific Islanders represent the two sides of the same coin. And the Pacific Island region geographically is big enough to accommodate all of our development partners including the EU. It is in everyone’s interests to safeguard fisheries, limit and manage the impacts of Climate Change, and reduce transnational crime.
Improved health and educational outcomes, which can be supported with foreign aid, will contribute to socioeconomic stability in the island countries. This stability is what all involved wish to see.
One thing is indisputable. To Pacific Islanders, Climate Change is not a distant concept or an emerging threat. It is a threat today; when villagers have no fresh water because it has not rained for months, when they cannot plant because the soil has too much salt, when roads are washed away by “King tides”, they see Climate Change. It is the greatest threat to human security in the Pacific. So China and the US can jostle for position, and fund security initiatives and development projects, but the biggest contribution they can make to security in the region is to acknowledge their own role in and responsibility for Climate Change. They can help Pacific Islanders, who are most affected- and who are affected now.
Image Credit: MagPie 372 via Flickr