As an afternoon rainstorm pounded the glass-and-wood frame roof of New Zealand’s embassy here — making it hard to hear the speakers at times — Foreign Minister Murray McCully recalled the warm relations that have existed between his country and the United States ever since World War II, when 70 years ago last month, five American transport ships, a cruise ship and a destroyer sailed into Auckland Harbor.
The occasion: Pacific Day, an annual gathering of officials from a dozen Pacific jurisdictions large and small that dates back to the early 1990s. This year’s event, which took place May 23, was co-sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and included many island nations — like Tuvalu, Nauru, Kiribati and Micronesia — that rarely make waves on the Washington diplomatic circuit.
“Our friendship is based on a common set of interests and a common set of values. It is a friendship demonstrated by the support we give each other when times are tough,” said McCully, thanking the United States for its assistance to New Zealand after a series of earthquakes leveled the country’s second-largest city, Christchurch.
“New Zealand is delighted to see increasing levels of interaction between the United States and Pacific island countries across a broad range of political, economic and developmental issues,” said the foreign minister, who was in Washington to meet with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other administration officials.
“We are proud to be a Pacific nation. Immigration from the Pacific has shaped and defined our national identity,” he added. “New Zealand is committed to the future of the Pacific. The region has a lot going for it: young, vibrant people with diverse cultures, a vast array of fish and marine resources, and minerals, oil and renewable energy.”
But, he acknowledged, “It’s not a Pacific postcard oasis.”
“Climate change is a major threat to many Pacific countries, particularly those with low-lying atolls,” he said. “Those seeking to develop export industries must overcome the tyranny of distance, lack of access to capital and quarantine restrictions in other countries. Tourism development is thwarted by lack of international and local transport, and by lack of investment in local infrastructure. There are also security challenges. The Pacific is not immune to the attention of global criminal syndicates. The threats of the drug trade, illegal fishing and human trafficking are all prevalent.
McCurry singled out the “internal security challenges” in recent years — including military coups in Fiji, riots in Tonga, and ethnic unrest in the Solomon Islands.
Despite their problems, those three countries all co-sponsored Pacific Day 2012, along with the ambassadors and representatives of Australia, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tuvalu and Vanuatu. The U.S. territories of American Samoa, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands — as well as the state of Hawaii, President Obama’s birthplace — also co-sponsored the event.
Participants got the chance to sample a dizzying variety of foods from across the Pacific, including kelaguen mannok (a chicken dish made with onion, lemon juice and red-hot peppers) from Guam; whole-roasted pig from Hawaii; banana plantain cooked in coconut milk from Micronesia; tapioca from Palau; grilled milk fish from Papua New Guinea; shrimp in blood-orange sauce from Australia; kalel pumpkin and rice bobo from the Marshall Islands — and, of course, roast lamb from New Zealand.
They washed down all this Pacific food with Australian wines, Papua New Guinea coffee and Fiji’s famous bottled mineral water — while enjoying performances by Australian didgeridoo player Cameron McCarthy, New Zealand’s Kahurangi professional Maori dancers as well as dance groups from Samoa, Fiji and Hawaii.
Esther Brimmer, assistant U.S. secretary of state for international organization affairs, said no one should doubt that the United States is itself a Pacific nation in every sense of the word. She pointed out that Clinton’s first foreign trip in 2009 was not to Europe but Asia — a first for secretaries of state.
In addition, Obama was the first president to participate in the East Asia Summit. However, she said, the American commitment to security, development and economic growth is not new.
“The Obama administration has embraced that commitment and strengthened it, but it did not begin in 2009. Since the 19th century, the United States has been a Pacific nation, and we are proud to share this heritage with so many other countries,” she said. “We recognize that more than ever before, the U.S. economy and our national security are intertwined with the rest of the world, especially with the Asia-Pacific region.”
Besides the food, dancing and speeches, Pacific Day also featured a wide-ranging discussion moderated by Ernie Bower of CSIS. Panelists included two permanent representatives to the United Nations: Papua New Guinea’s Robert Aisi, who also chairs the Pacific Small Island Developing States Group, and Nauru’s Marlene Moses, chairwoman of the 43-member Alliance of Small Island States.
The four other panelists were Durwood Zaelke, president of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development; Kate Brown, coordinator of the Global Island Partnership; Patrizia Tumbarello, head of the Pacific Islands Unit at the International Monetary Fund, and Eddie Walsh, a non-resident fellow at the CSIS Pacific Forum.
The islands of the Pacific, argued Walsh, cannot think of their security interests without considering Asia. The two security complexes “are deeply integrated and therefore require a comprehensive policy approach,” he said.
Likewise, “Pacific countries will need to figure out how to take advantage of competition between China and the U.S.-Japan-Australia-New Zealand alliance without destabilizing themselves and the region. This is the region’s top security puzzle.”
And when it comes to economics, according to the IMF’s Tumbarello, Pacific islands are at a disadvantage because of their small populations and lack of a diversified export base.
“They are particularly subject to commodity price shocks, which has added extra challenges,” she said. “But they also have large opportunities. One is geographic location. They are regionally integrated with Australia, New Zealand, the United States and the emerging markets of Asia. We think this provides resilience to shocks more than for islands of the Caribbean, whose business cycle is related to economies that have not been doing as well as Asia.”
In fact, the Pacific region’s trade with China has shot up seven-fold since 2000, and for some countries like the Solomon Islands, China is now the top trading partner.
Going forward, Tumbarello sees two main challenges: to build up resilience to shocks, including natural disasters and climate change.
“Countries should save for rainy days,” she advised. “They also need to foster inclusive growth that benefits all sectors of the economy and creates jobs. For commodity exporters like the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, that means having the right tax system so governments can raise the right amount of revenues. For others, it means to prioritize better. It’s very hard to pass structural reforms when countries are in recession.”
About the Author
Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.