Geostrategic Challenges: Pacific Elders’ Voice Perspectives

Sometimes it shouldn’t be a question about who gives you more money, but rather on who will respect your integrity and independence.

Sometimes it shouldn’t be a question about who gives you more money, but rather on who will respect your integrity and independence. This was the opinion of former United States Congress and president of the University of Guam, Professor Robert Underwood, regarding Pacific Island states’ reliance on financial and non-financial assistance from developed nations and the implications that come thereof. Mr Underwood is a member of the Pacific Elders Voice – an organisation of former regional leaders who use their vast experience to advise and provide guidance on regional issues – who were guest speakers at the Leadership Seminar Series at the Fiji National University on September 4, 2023.

Speaking on the geostrategic challenges that exist in the region, Mr Underwood said one such instance was the conflict between China and the United States as they try to further their dominance and presence in the Pacific.

“They look at the Pacific Ocean as an area to have a contest over, they look at the Pacific Ocean as an area where there are resources about which they can compete, and they look at the Pacific Ocean as a place, maybe that they can penetrate economically,” he said.

“This competition is expressed in military terms most often, and if you really listen carefully to military planners in China and military planners in the United States, one is the focal point of much of that conversation as it as are the three Freely Associated States (Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, and the Republic of Palau) and the Northern Marianas as well.

“That impact down here, south of the equator, is also pretty obvious with the United States trying to counter this, what is seen by the United States as expansion of Chinese influence through their own programs, specific initiatives.

“That geostrategic competition really poses an important question for all Pacific Islanders and that is: Do you just want to continue to be pawns in a larger game? Do you just want to be pawns in a chess game in which large countries are actually making the decision?”

Mr Underwood said these geostrategic challenges were connected to the existing threat of climate change in the region.

“Ironically, it’s connected, of course, to climate change. China and the United States are the greatest emitters of greenhouse gases in the world and so at the same time that they’re also flexing their muscles and judging how adequately they flex their muscles by the response of elected leadership in the Pacific, and how you see China, and how you see the United States.

“It’s really important to understand that choices will be made by you, as the younger generation, and it’s in a two-headed challenge that is connected, that has not been presented before, and that is the geopolitical strategic competition as well as the existential threat of climate change.

“The issue is presented in an interesting way. Sometimes it seems like they’re asking you ‘pick a side, which side are you on?’ When, really, the question is, ‘are you going to pick a future for yourself?’ That’s really the question.

“Sometimes the question is, ‘who’s going to give you more money? Who can give you more?’ when the question should be, ‘who can respect your integrity and independence the most?’

“And they’ll also ask the question, ‘who is stronger militarily? But the real question is, ‘who can respect our natural strength as Pacific Islanders, our natural environment, our inherent strength, and our way of life?”

The issue of trust and dependency on foreign aid

As we all know, Pacific Island countries are heavily dependent on aid from bigger and developed countries like Australia, New Zealand, United States, China, and Japan.

These helping hands provide all sorts of assistance that comes in the form of finances, infrastructure, volunteerism, military, scholarships, among others.

Most researchers have consistently questioned the genuineness of this assistance and whether there’s a hidden agenda — only known to the country providing the assistance — behind it. “But how much can we trust these countries and the aid they pour into the region?”

Former president of the Republic of the Marshall Islands Hilda C Heine, who’s also a member of the Pacific Elders Voice, posed this question while speaking at the same event as Mr Underwood.

“In the first place, friends don’t betray friends and trust is the diplomatic currency that takes a very long time to earn, but once it’s lost, it’s difficult to gain back,” Ms Heine said.

“Our dependency on donor aid, the fact that there is a lack of self-reliance on ourselves, and a greater reliance on others for our survivability, makes us really vulnerable. That is an issue that future leaders need to consider.

“A lot of the time, I think leaders take on aid because of its immediate benefit, and tend not to think about the long-term result from that aid. We’re not able to make our decisions for what is good for us because we are blinded by the aid that is given to us.”

Ms Heine said the influence that these developed nations seemed to have now in the Pacific could be seen in how regional leaders respond to issues such as the Fukushima wastewater dumping, for example.

“At least for us in the Marshall Islands, we have experienced the testing program (The 67 US atmospheric nuclear weapons tests between 1946 and 1958), and we still have people that are still nuclear nomads in the Marshall Islands that have not been able to return to their homes.

“They were told that after the testing programs they would be returned to their homes, that their homes will be clean, but nothing to that effect has taken place.

“This is happening all across the region, and I’m sure a lot of the leaders that have now accepted that Fukushima dumping, they have their own, perhaps, reasons for accepting.

“It’s possible that they got some projects to do roads, or hospitals, or what not, but the fact that we are so dependent on aid makes us very vulnerable.”

Ms Heine stressed the importance of Pacific nations having to look at their dependency “and to look at how we can negotiate from strengths, rather than negotiate from weakness, which is where we are at this point in time”.


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