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From a sleepy backwater, the South Pacific has been catapulted into the diplomatic limelight, with the Pacific Islands Forum meeting in the Cook Islands playing host not just to Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, but to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and a large delegation from China. All of a sudden, the Pacific island states — a mere scattering of specks in a vast blue ocean — are at centre stage.

This Pacific Islands Forum is critical for Australia’s recalibration of its various regional relationships, which from time to time wander off course. Usually, this matters little to Australia, given the somewhat marginal economic and security flow tends to go out rather than in.

But now, Australia is looking for regional friends, wants to keep the US happy and needs to bed down the Pacific Solution asylum-seeker program that most remain bemused by but for the economic benefits it offers. Australia’s diplomatic shopping list is substantial, complex and is increasingly important in the run-up to the next federal elections.

Propping up the Nauruan economy by dumping Australia’s politically embarrassing asylum seekers is a diplomatic given. So far as Papua New Guinea is concerned, dumping asylum seekers on Manus Island is inconsequential. This is especially so if we all brush under the carpet how close PNG came to a coup d’etat just a few months ago and how far the country seems to be sliding towards state failure.

Australia will also hope to consolidate improving relations with Fiji, with the renewal of diplomatic representation while increasing pressure on Fiji’s military government to hold elections. Australia also wishes its peace-keeping force to exit the Solomon Islands while not being held accountable for its continuing political disfunction.

Not least, Australia also wants the support of the Pacific Island states in its bid for a seat on the UN Security Council. If even our backyard neighbours won’t support us, we have very little hope of success there.

And then there’s the big picture, which is why Hillary Clinton is attending what Reuters called a “remote corner of the world”. It is also why Australia is keen for everything to go just as positively as is possible for a group of countries that often feel like what the LA Times called “an afterthought”.

In short, the reason — as it is so often these days — is China, which will also have a significant presence at the forum. China’s “soft power” diplomacy intended to increase everything from its markets to its fishing rights to its new friends in the UN has extended its reach into a region the US has traditionally regarded as being within its strategic spheres of influence.

But, as we have seen with East Timor, where China offered to set up an extensive radar tracking system ostensibly to spot illegal fishing but that had the more obvious function of tracking US nuclear submarines, China’s interests are not all entirely “soft”.

Clinton is visiting the Cook Islands as part of a wider regional tour, including Russia for APEC, Indonesia, East Timor, Brunei and China. In China, the discussion will focus on the South China Sea dispute, which has the potential for military confrontation with and between other claimant countries, including Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines.

With oil reserves believed to be significantly more than held in Kuwait, and established fisheries, China’s claim to the South China Sea extends its territorial reach vastly beyond international conventions.

As the US key ally in the region, Australia is in the Cook Islands to lend support to the US case for the island states to remain “on side” when they might be tempted to look elsewhere.

For a part of the world that only attracts attention when it is being problematic, all of a sudden the small and micro Pacific island states are everyone’s darlings. Given that the region is now firmly in the middle of competing superpower claims, this enhanced status may remain so for some time.

Peter Fray

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