Tuesday 20 Oct 2020 | 17:36 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 20 Oct 2020 | 17:36 | SYDNEY

Pacific island nations making new friends

10 June 2011 10:37

Nic Maclellan works as a journalist and researcher in the Pacific islands.

In 'Vanuatu's strange bedfellow', Rodger Shanahan raises concern about possible moves by Vanuatu to recognise as states two breakaway regions of Georgia, a step already taken by Nauru in 2009. These diplomatic initiatives are part of a broader pattern.

Pacific island nations are largely reliant on development assistance and trade from traditional partners like Australia, New Zealand, Japan, the US and the EU, but there is increasing interest in South-South co-operation and diversifying sources of political and economic assistance.

In September 2010, speaking to the UN General Assembly, Solomon Islands Foreign Minister Peter Shanel thanked a range of countries for support, including Cuba, Italy, Taiwan, Papua New Guinea, and 'our new partners Luxembourg for supporting the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) and Portugal for supporting Solomon Islands external students'.

The Luxembourg Government was invited as a 'special guest' to the March 2011 MSG meeting in Fiji, hosted by Commodore Bainimarama, who currently serves as chair of the sub-regional organisation. At a time when both Luxembourg and Australia are vying for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council in 2013, Fiji may be suggesting that Canberra cannot be assured of pan-Melanesian support when it comes to UN votes!

In recent years, Honiara has developed a more diverse foreign policy too, building diplomatic links with Iran and joining Vanuatu to call for an end to the US embargo of Cuba. 

Once scorned as a Soviet proxy in the islands, Havana has strengthened relations with other island nations in recent years. Vanuatu established diplomatic links with Cuba in 1983 and remained the only Pacific island member of the Non-Aligned Movement for decades. But regional ties to Cuba improved after the September 2008 Cuba-Pacific summit in Havana, attended by Kiribati President Anote Tong, Tuvalu's then Prime Minister Apisai Ielemia, and other Pacific foreign ministers and officials. In early 2009, Cuba established formal diplomatic relations with Fiji, Tonga and Samoa.

As documented in 'The Reality of Aid' report on South-South Co-operation, Cuba currently supplies medical staff to Timor-Leste, Kiribati, Tuvalu, Solomon Islands, Nauru, Vanuatu and PNG, while dozens of students from these countries study medicine and primary health care in Havana — Cuba is supplying many more medical scholarships to islanders than Australia.

AusAID is rightly proud of the Kiribati-Australia Nursing Initiative (KANI), but thanks to the wonders of YouTube, island students can now compare the option of studying in Queensland or Cuba (check out these videos to see groups of i-Kiribati students singing songs of praise in English and Spanish).

Under the Bainimarama regime in Suva, Fiji is also broadening its international links. Addressing the UN General Assembly in September last year, Commodore Bainimarama stated that:

...this significant shift in foreign policy direction heralds the globalisation and maturity of Fiji. It demonstrates Fiji's intention to become a good and engaged global citizen. Accordingly, over the past year Fiji has formalised diplomatic relations with many countries with which no ties previously existed. In addition, Fiji has sought membership of the Non-Aligned Movement.

In June 2010, Pacific leaders met in Abu Dhabi with members of the Arab League, which pledged tens of millions of dollars of aid and increased trade with Pacific nations. Pacific leaders supported the Arab League's call for an Arab Peace Initiative in the Middle East, a nuclear-free zone in the region, and backing for the UAE rather than Canada in their bids for a seat on the UN Security Council.

The suggestion that Vanuatu is falling in with 'strange bedfellows' is misleading. Australians may like to think that the islands' diversifying diplomatic links are purely a matter of chequebook diplomacy, but there are also some fundamental policy differences between Pacific states and Canberra, Washington and Paris.

In 2010, Tuvalu, Cook Islands and Nauru joined Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia to tell the UN that they could not support the Copenhagen Accord on climate change — and that's not because they suddenly discovered Bolivarian socialism. Improved ties to Cuba do not suggest any particular affinity with Che Guevara amongst the islands' Christian, conservative leaders. Rather, there are clear differences between Canberra and Pacific neighbours on issues like self-determination for New Caledonia, nuclear disarmament and greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets.

At a time when Canberra backs France's ongoing colonial role in the South Pacific and maintains a 5% target for emissions cuts by 2020, it's hardly surprising that Pacific nations will continue to collaborate with Cuba as fellow members of the UN Special Committee on Decolonisation, and the Alliance of Small Island States.

Photo by Flickr user LuRoGo.