Clinton’s Visit to Pacific Islands Forum Signals Renewed U.S. Engagement

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By Charles E. Morrison

(Note: This commentary originally appeared in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Sept. 12, 2012)

It may not compare to APEC or the G-20 for global economic weight, but for the Pacific island nations, the annual Pacific Islands Forum summit is the premier regional meeting. It brings together heads of the island nations (including Australia and New Zealand) with representatives of international organizations and “dialogue partners,” including the United States, China, Japan and many others. For the Cook Islands, with less than 15,000 residents, hosting last week’s PIF was a rare event made especially significant by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s unprecedented stop to attend the post-meeting partner dialogue ­– the highest level U.S. participation ever.

Clinton at the Rarotonga Dialogue on Gender Equality, including PIDP's Jerry Finin and EWC Distinguished Alumna Amanda Ellis.For sheer pomp, the PIF’s opening ceremony was unforgettable. Each of the island leaders was carried on paata, or litter-born elevated chairs, into Rarotonga's National Auditorium amid loud drumming and cheers.  A standing-room-only crowd, perhaps 10 percent of the island’s population, filled the high school-sized auditorium, making it a true community affair.

Two issues dominated the PIF discussions.  The conference drew attention to the island states’ stewardship of the vast marine resources within their huge exclusive economic zones, which provide economic opportunities as well as a responsibility for their protection. There was particularly strong interest in regulatory issues surrounding seabed mining.

A second important theme, owing much to Clinton, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard and several Pacific island women’s organizations, was the need for better protection of and greater opportunities for island women. UN statistics show that Pacific island women are more likely to suffer abuse and less likely to have as much educational, economic and political opportunity as women of other developing countries.

Gillard announced a comprehensive 10-year, $320 million program for women’s advancement, while Clinton launched the “Rarotonga Partnership,” a program coordinated by the East-West Center and supported by Australia and New Zealand that will promote the training and participation of island women in Pacific universities and regional organizations.

The new EWC Pacific Leadership Program was also announced, modeled after the Center’s decade-old Asia Pacific Leadership Program, but tailored for the island nations. Taiwan is partnering as well in this certificate program for young leaders.

For the Cooks, the Secretary's stop was “huge,” to quote the Cook Islands News. American flags sprouted around the island, and the night market was renamed for a night in her honor. The U.S. delegation out-numbered all others, and while some complained that it was too large, others thought it sent a welcome, overdue message of renewed U.S. involvement in the Pacific.

Clinton was joined by U.S. ambassadors to the region as well as the commanders of the U.S. Pacific Command and Hawai‘i’s Coast Guard district. Another distinguished visitor from Hawai‘i was Polynesian Voyaging Society master navigator Nainoa Thompson, who spoke to a crowded room including several island leaders about Hokule‘a’s planned voyage around the world to raise awareness of the urgent need for marine protection.

By chance our EWC delegation was housed in a comfortable beachside inn owed by Maui-born James Bruce. A Hawai‘i flag at the entrance and local memorabilia throughout, including old license plates, made us feel especially welcome.

Next year’s PIF summit will be somewhat closer to home, in the Marshall Islands. Although Hawai‘i, unlike American Samoa and Guam, is not an official PIF observer, one can be sure that directly or indirectly, it will be deeply involved. And while it would be unprecedented to have the PIF hosted outside a full member country, Hawai‘i would certainly be a logical and dynamic venue for some future PIF meeting.

East-West Center President Charles E. Morrison attended the recent Pacific Islands Forum summit in the Cook Islands as a representative of the Center’s Pacific Islands Development Progam, one of nine regional organizations that support and collaborate with the PIF.