In his profile of the Pacific Islands Forum, correspondent Damien Kingsbury manages to perpetuate some of the worst clichés about the region: the islands are “a sleepy backwater” and “a part of the world that only attracts attention when it is being problematic”.

He follows the Canberra press gallery in focusing mainly on the topics that affect Australia, like asylum seekers in Nauru or the rise of China. But there are plenty of issues that concern the region that don’t rate a mention in the Australia media.

Kingsbury repeats the cliché that island states are “a mere scattering of specks in a vast blue ocean”. In contrast, the very theme of this week’s Forum meeting is “Large Ocean Island States — the Pacific Challenge”. This theme is a deliberate play on the concept advanced by the late Tongan novelist Epeli Hau’ofa. In contrast to the Western image of “islands in a far sea” — isolated and impotent — Hau’ofa posed a different perspective, celebrating “our sea of islands” and talking of a region unified by the Grand Ocean and common elements of island culture.

One reason this year’s Forum is focused on maritime zones is that there are major debates over the exploitation of ocean minerals and fisheries.

With a vast Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), the Puna government in the Cook Islands has followed Kiribati and Australia in declaring a huge maritime protection zone in its southern islands, seeking to protect the sustainable development of maritime resources. This week in Rarotonga, seven forum island countries signed and exchanged maritime boundary agreements, resolving several overlapping jurisdictions with neighbouring countries. At the same time, there is growing debate over seabed mining in island EEZs, with local NGOs resisting the push from Nautilus Corporation to start seabed mining in PNG waters next year.

Closer to home, Resources Minister Martin Ferguson has been urging action to find a new petroleum province on the scale of North West Shelf, leading to the 2010 signing of a “Declaration of Intention between Australia and France (on behalf of New Caledonia) over Coral Sea Management”.

This deal signals increased joint operations with France over maritime resources in the waters between Queensland and New Caledonia. Geoscience Australia is working with French research agencies on joint surveys of the ocean floor near the Capel and Faust Basins, looking for sediments that would indicate deep-water reserves of oil and gas. As New Caledonia moves to a decision on its political status after 2014 under the Noumea Accord, the sight of France and Australia signing deals on Coral Sea management “on behalf of New Caledonia” raises echoes of the Timor Gap oil deal between Canberra and Jakarta.

Kingsbury perpetuates the view promoted by our government that Australia and New Zealand have succeeded in “increasing pressure on Fiji’s military government to hold elections.” In reality, Fiji’s Commodore Bainimarama and Attorney General Aiyaz Saiyed Khaiyum are keeping to the timetable they outlined years ago. Canberra now faces calls from some Pacific countries (including Nauru) for Fiji to re-join Forum meetings even before the scheduled 2014 elections.

He also states that “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”.

I’d suggest that it’s the other way around. Hillary Clinton is in the Cook Islands because of growing US concern that Australia and New Zealand have not been as effective in managing affairs in the South-West Pacific, as was the case in past decades. The Centre for Strategic and International Studies — an influential Washington DC think tank — notes this month that “despite the Australian and New Zealand governments’ claims in the press that the normalisation is the result of successful steps towards democracy, in reality it is more an admission of the failure of their previous hard-line policies”.

Kingsbury states that forum island countries are being tempted to “look elsewhere” for aid, trade and investment beyond traditional partners like the ANZUS allies. But that horse bolted long ago.

China is not the only country involved in the islands’ “Look North” policy. Last year Korea doubled its aid to the region and Indonesia and Timor-Leste gained observer status with the Melanesian Spearhead Group — the subregional grouping that links the largest island nations. As well as growing ties with east Asian and ASEAN nations, Tonga, Solomon Islands and Fiji have developed links with Cuba and Middle East powers such as the UAE and Iran. This week as island leaders gather in Rarotonga, Fiji’s Foreign Minister Ratu Inoke Kubuabola is in Tehran, attending the Non-Aligned Movement Conference and formalising diplomatic links with Iran.On issues such as climate change, decolonisation and nuclear non-proliferation, Pacific governments are sharply opposed to policies coming from Canberra and Washington. That’s reflected in more active diplomacy outside the constraints of the forum, where Australia and New Zealand hold sway. Nauru’s UN Ambassador Marlene Moses is chair of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) and there is better co-ordination and activity by island ambassadors at the United Nations, led by PNG’s Robert Aisi, Fiji’s Peter Thomson and former Vanuatu prime minister Donald Kalpokas.

Last September, the Asia Group within the United Nations formally changed its name to the “Group of Asia and the Pacific Small Island Developing States”, a reflection of this new diplomatic vibrancy and growing links between Forum Island Countries and Asian powers. In the irony of colonial history, Australia and New Zealand remain as members of the Western Europe and Others Group (WEOG), while our island neighbours participate in the growing Asia-Pacific group.

Kingsbury suggests that “so far as Papua New Guinea is concerned, dumping asylum seekers on Manus Island is inconsequential”. But this underplays the role of historical memory among citizens in our Melanesian neighbour.

At the time of the 1969 Act of Free Choice in West Papua, Australia arrested two pro-independence West Papuan leaders, who were then detained on Manus. The men, Willem Zonggonao and Clemens Runawery, were travelling to the United Nations just weeks before the UN-supervised vote, carrying testimonies from many West Papuan leaders calling for independence and for the UN to abandon the Act of Free Choice. They were stopped when they crossed the border into Australian administered New Guinea, interviewed by ASIO and flown to Manus Island, where they were detained to stop them reaching New York.

This incident symbolises the ways that Indonesia’s takeover broke longstanding links between West Papua and other Pacific neighbours: representatives from Dutch New Guinea were active members of the South Pacific Commission in the 1950s; church delegates came from Jayapura to the founding meeting of the Pacific Conference of Churches in 1961; and West Papuan students studied at the Fiji School of Medicine until 1969.

Few in Australia know this history, but it’s well remembered by people like Powes Parkop, the former governor of PNG’s National Capital District. Parkop, a noted human rights lawyer, is threatening to take Australia to court over possible breaches of the PNG Constitution if they detain people on Manus without appropriate legal advice and support.

Manus is far from “inconsequential”. In January 2006, 43 West Papuan asylum seekers arrived by canoe on Cape York, disrupting relations between governments in Canberra, Jakarta and Port Moresby. Will we send another boatload of West Papuans to Manus if they arrive in Australian waters in the middle of the 2014 Indonesian election campaign?

Kingsbury’s “sleepy backwater” will pose serious policy challenges in coming years, for whichever party wins Australia’s 2013 elections. In 2014, Fiji, New Caledonia and Indonesia will hold elections; from 2015, New Caledonia and Bougainville will both move to a decision on their political status, with nationalist movements calling for independence rather than autonomy; the same year, the international community will be debating the follow up to both the Millennium Development Goals and the Kyoto Protocol, both central to development policies in small island states.

The Pacific Ocean is central to our economy and culture. Australia needs better analysis of the islands region in our mass media and also in “alternative” news sources such as Crikey.

*Nic Maclellan works as a journalist and researcher in the Pacific Islands