In a speech given last Tuesday to the Pacific Islands Society at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), the Fiji High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, Mr. Solo Mara, argued that the Pacific Islands region has a 'voice that is beginning to be recognized on the global stage' as it emerges as a possible "geo-strategic political pitch for the super-powers, particularly China and the United States."
On this political pitch, the High Commissioner maintained that "the (United States) and China to Pacific Islanders represent two sides of the same coin." Yet, his prepared remarks expressed far more criticism of western engagement in the region than that of China.
While the High Commissioner "welcomed" the "renewed interest" by the United States and cited former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's attendance at the Pacific Islands Forum Leaders Meeting in 2012 as "remarkable" development and a "clear confirmation of Washington's realization that it must be more involved in the Pacific Islands," he also pointed out "that Mrs. Clinton was beaten to the islands by a multitude of senior Chinese Government officials" and suggested that the main motivation for America's "renewed interest" may have been to prevent "losing its influence entirely" in the region. He then went on to condemn past actions by former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; implying that those actions failed to demonstrate a genuine interest in a "partnership based on mutual respect."
On the other hand, the High Commissioner said China was a "sincere development partner" that has demonstrated a sustained commitment in the region and "stepped in when other western development partners, such as the (United States) and the (United Kingdom), withdrew." From this perspective, he called "improved and closer relations with China ... an inevitable progression" and said that China had been more effective than Australia at filling "the vacuum" left when other western development partners pulled out.
In offering praise, the High Commissioner made no explicit mention of the significant development aid and disaster response contributions provided by Australia, the United States, and New Zealand to the region. However, he did "applaud the (European Union) for having provided eight million euros for a five-year (climate change) research and adaptation project" and singled out the "Chinese Exim Bank loans (for) providing much needed infrastructure development for economic development in the islands."
While his speech provided a notably more favorable assessment of Chinese engagement in the region, the High Commissioner nevertheless maintained that the Pacific Island Counties would "do well to engage productively with both superpowers." He also expressed his belief that the region remains "geographically ... big enough to accommodate all of our development partners." However, he cautioned that development partners "must engage from a position of respect and understanding with Pacific Island Countries" that acknowledges the region's need to "prioritize human security, as limited funds mean that the most pressing issues must be addressed."
On this point, the High Commissioner called attention to the significant "difference in the perception of security threats" that exists between Pacific Island Countries and those outside the region. This followed his enumeration of the major human security threats facing the Pacific Islands region, including climate change, illegal fishing, HIV/AIDS, and non-communicable diseases as well as the "general perception, amongst Pacific Island peoples, that their immediate development needs are not being addressed."
After conceding that "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," the High Commissioner urged western countries to recognize the gulf that he implied existed between their security priorities and those of the Pacific Island Countries. By doing so, he said that they would better "understand why the Pacific Islands have sought closer ties with Asia in their pursuit of 'security' in the Pacific Islands sense."
The High Commissioner closed his remarks by declaring climate change "the greatest threat to human security in the Pacific." He then went on to issue a challenge to both the United States and China. As they continue to "jostle for position" in the region, he called on both countries to "acknowledge their own role in and responsibility for Climate Change" and "help Pacific Islanders, who are most affected and who are affected now."