Following the re-election of President Barack Obama University of Hawaii academic Tarcisius Kabutaulaka says the Obama administration needs to improve its relationships with the small Pacific nations rather than just view in relation to Beijing.
Speaker:Associate Professor Tarcisius Kabutaulaka, Center for Pacific Islands Studies, University of Hawaii
KABUTAULAKA: Hawaii has been traditionally a democratic state so there was no doubt that the Democrats would do well in Hawaii.
COONEY: Looking at what the Obama presidency will mean for the Pacific, now in his first term he followed on from President George W. Bush's recommitment to the Pacific and re-engagement as it was described by a lot of people. He of course moved a little bit forward with putting of the base at Guam, we heard that there's going to be a marine deployment in Darwin in northern Australia. What other things though will it mean for the region? What would you see as priorities of what he might be able to do?
KABUTAULAKA: Well two things about Obama as compared to President George Bush; the first is that in the Obama administration we've seen a shift from just rhetoric about commitment to the Pacific to actually being in the Pacific. We've seen the Secretary of State at the last Pacific Islands Forum meeting, which reflects the importance that the current administration sees the Pacific. But the Pacific is seen, and I've said this on a number of occasions, the Pacific Islands are seen not as important in and of themselves, but important as geo-political space in relation to China. So the US is seeing the Pacific Islands as important, but because it wants to see to ensure that China's impact in the Pacific is not as expansive as it could be. And this is similar to what we've seen during the Cold War era when the US and other western countries had a strategic denial policy with the former Soviet Union. The difference however from the Cold War era is that at that time during the Cold War a lot of the Pacific Island countries were either not independent or had just gained independence. Now most of the Pacific Island countries that we are dealing with are independent nations, and therefore have more independence in making decisions about their foreign policy. And in fact a lot of them have relationships with China, whereas during the Cold War era a lot of the countries did not have relationships with the former Soviet Union. So the dynamics is a bit different now than it was during the Cold War era.
COONEY: A lot of that will come down to funding though Tarcisius I would imagine, and you mentioned the relationships a lot of those island nations have with China, it's based very much on the support that they get from China in relation to financial help, and in many ways over the past 20 or 30 years that I think has been seen as where the US has sort of backed away, they've left it to Australia and New Zealand to sort of take that role over, and that's where the re-engagement I suppose comes back in, in a serious term?
KABUTAULAKA: Yeah that's true except that I do not see the US putting money into the Pacific in the same way as China is doing. Yes the US promised money, particularly in the northern Pacific, but that has always been the case in relation to the Compact of Free Association. At the Pacific Island Forum the US has promised a couple of million dollars to look at gender issues, gender and governance in the Pacific, which will be administered through the Pacific Islands Development Program at the East West Center. But apart from that they've improved embassies and so forth, but not the kind of money that China is throwing around in the region, particularly to those countries that have diplomatic relations with China. But even the countries that don't have diplomatic relations with China, for instance Solomon Islands, which has diplomatic relations with Taiwan, Solomon Islands trades more with mainland China than with Taiwan. So there is a trading relationship even in the absence of funds coming in to the country, trading relationship that does not exist with the United States. And so the US would have to re-think how it engages with the Pacific.
COONEY: When we hear about engagement with the Pacific, I mentioned Guam there as well, it's often seen as it's more that northern Pacific. But look into that crystal ball, you've got another four years of Obama Democratic government, and if you look to the South Pacific what do you think, or what do you feel given your experience and your knowledge of this area, should be the priorities that they will do apart from of course that geo-political presence as you talked about?
KABUTAULAKA: The other issues that are important for the South Pacific are things like climate change for instance. Climate change is an issue that is important not only for the northern Pacific but for the South Pacific as well. If you listen to the campaigns, the Democrats tend to talk a little bit more about the issues of climate change compared to the Republicans. And I would think that under the Obama administration in the next four years we would see a lot more US engagement with South Pacific Island countries for things like this. But apart from that issues of governance, I mentioned the women in governance fund that the US has promised to give through the East West Center, so that kind of engagement with the southern Pacific as compared to the military strategic engagement that we have overseen with the north, but will I suspect become intense as the US moves its base from Okinawa to Guam.