After years of neglect, the US is realising it can't afford to ignore its allies in the Pacific
While Barack Obama charmed his way across the Middle East and Europe last week trying to look presidential, every carefully chosen word soaked up by the world media sponge travelling in his entourage, US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice took a near-anonymous trip down-under.
Using up some of her frequent-flyer miles before she leaves office in January, Rice took a trip round the South Pacific to Australia, New Zealand and Samoa. The brief stop in Perth was informal, with the media focusing on her shopping habits and hints that she was more interested in returning to academia next year than running for high office. In Samoa she met with Pacific Island leaders, putting pressure on the interim-Fiji government, which claimed power via a military coup in 2006, to hold elections in March as promised.
The New Zealand stop was more significant - for New Zealand at least. It gets few visits from senior US political figures these days, having declared itself nuclear-free in the mid-1980s and refusing to join the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The relationship between the once-close countries has become prickly. In 2002, then-secretary of state Colin Powell described the countries as "very, very, very close friends", but pointedly did not use the word "allies".
Rice changed all that at the weekend, saying that "New Zealand is certainly seen as a friend and an ally" and the countries had "moved on" from their nuclear dispute. (As an interesting aside, the Tehran Times latched onto that comment with a story that began: "Secretary of state Condoleezza Rice said Saturday that a lingering nuclear dispute between the United States and New Zealand ought to be overcome to focus on a new era of cooperation." Nice try fellas, but nuclear-free and nuclear proliferation aren't comparable).
Perhaps the most interesting comment from Rice was: "We have in recent years moved beyond a whole list of problems, and we have really structured our relationship and our cooperation to meet the post-September 11 challenges." Translation: These days, the US needs all the friends it can get.
Problem is, the US has taken its Pacific friends for granted. That's never a good move in any relationship. The Bush administration's obsession with Iraq and Afghanistan has meant taking its eyes off too many other regions and their concerns. The Pacific Island leaders, for example, took the opportunity to remind Rice that their nations could disappear under the rising ocean within the next 50 or so years if climate change isn't taken more seriously.
Some of those leaders too, should be cause for US concern, as a Congressional Research Service report last year spelled out in clear terms: "In some Pacific Island countries, weak political and legal institutions, corruption, civil unrest and economic scarcity could lead to the creation of failed states or allow for foreign terrorist activity within their borders."
The last comment on palm-tree terrorism may be a little exaggerated, but the other fears are well warranted. The White House seemed to have acknowledged its mistake when it promised to "re-engage" with the region and declared 2007 the "Year of the Pacific". But just how seriously it took that declaration can be measured by the fact that it took until 2008 for Rice to pop down for a visit.
America's neglect has been a boon for China, Taiwan and even Japan, who have all been hard at work wooing South Pacific nations. As that CRS report noted: "China has become a growing force in the Southwest Pacific as a result, some argue, of a political vacuum created by US neglect."
The report points to Chinese premier Wen Jiabao's 2006 signing of the China-Pacific Island Countries Economic Development and Cooperation Gjiding Framework, which promised $375m in development aid, China's $1bn Ramu nickel mine in Papua New Guinea, its demand for timber that has reportedly fuelled large-scale illegal logging in Indonesia and PNG and the large Chinese tuna fleet operating in Fijian waters. None of that is sinister in itself. But such aid comes with diplomatic strings attached. For a start, these countries, however small, have votes on powerful world bodies. And one vote by Kiribati or the Cooks is worth just as much as one vote by Britain or Germany. The Japanese, for example, have benefited from Pacific nations voting with them on the International Whaling Commission.
But the more serious issue is the battle between China and Taiwan over nationhood. Take Chinese money and you accept the One China policy. Take Taiwanese money and you support UN resolutions endorsing Taiwan's right to a seat on international organisations. As respected Pacific correspondent Michael Field reported in 2005, the results of that game can be seen sprinkled through the islands: the $4.8m courthouse in Rarotonga, Cook Islands, paid for by China, or the three-story, $8m administration building in Tuvalu, paid for by Taipei, for example. The problem, as the CRS report points out, is that such aid "may exacerbate underlying political, social and economic tensions in the region".
The US should recognise the aid-for-favours agenda. It's followed the same policy model for decades. But before we blithely dismiss Chinese and Taiwanese efforts in the Pacific as the US simply being out-played at its own game, it's worth remembering that the question of Taiwan's independence is one of the world's most dangerous disputes. Nuclear powers are lined up on either side. The spread of that dispute out into the Pacific should be of concern to us all, and of particular concern to America. If the "land of the free" wants to maintain influence in the region, if Rice's successor wants to continue her talk of "transformational diplomacy", then the next president had better widen his foreign policy focus.
This post originally appeared in the Guardian's Comment is Free section on July 31, 2008