Hawaii’s World

By A.A. Smyser

Thursday, February 4, 1999

U.S. involvement in
Pacific is shrinking

IN the past I have written hopefully of Hawaii as a conduit for U.S. involvement in the far-flung islands of the Pacific. Today both the Hawaii and U.S. political roles are withering.

Commercial participation from Hawaii is represented mainly by Pacific Century/Bank of Hawaii branches in the area and an expanding string of Outrigger Hotels.

But the U.S. has closed its State Department Office of Pacific Island Affairs. It has returned to lumping the islands with its Australia and New Zealand office. It has stopped International Development Agency grants, curtailed our embassy outlets, and dropped to little more than pro forma interest in the renamed Pacific Community (formerly the South Pacific Commission).

When their free-association agreements expire beginning in 2001, the U.S. is likely to curtail its financial support of the struggling islands it formerly administered as the Trust Territory of the Pacific.

The big difference: The Cold War has ended. The strategic importance of the Pacific islands has diminished.

Watching this with some dismay is my informant, Robert Kiste, director of the University of Hawaii's Center for Pacific Island Studies. He rues that UH passed up the opportunity to create a parallel center for Australia and New Zealand studies. Instead one is being established at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

Four years ago Governor Cayetano withdrew Hawaii from the Pacific Basin Development Council, focused on American flag areas in the Pacific.

The East-West Center continues its Pacific Islands Development Program, but with reduced funding. It is the sole Hawaii-based agency with outreach to all nine independent Pacific island nations created since 1962 plus the five new self-governing nations still in free association with the United States or New Zealand. Their leaders still convene here periodically under PIDP auspices.

PIDP does not have the resources hoped for after President George Bush held a summit with Pacific island leaders at the East-West Center in 1990. Yet Kiste says Sitiveni Halapua, director of PIDP, is now Hawaii's main link to the islands.

Working under Halapua, broadcaster Al Hulsen has created the Pacific Islands Report, Internet circulated and fed by radio stations and newspapers in the area, it is the world's best daily roundup of Pacific islands news.

Kiste says even independent islands want continued U.S. links, in part to provide educational alternatives to their residents.

The diminished U.S. Pacific interest is paralleled to a lesser extent by the United Kingdom, Kiste says. Australia and New Zealand remain strongly involved with their former possessions.

France is most involved of all. It has relinquished only its half of a joint French-British condominium, the New Hebrides. These islands now are independent Vanuatu.

FRANCE administers its remaining three areas --New Caledonia, French Polynesia (which includes Tahiti) and Wallis-Futuna -- as part of metropolitan France. It has poured $1 billion U.S. a year into New Caledonia to delay for 15 years an independence vote by the 200,000 residents.

It has established French-speaking universities in New Caledonia and Tahiti to preserve its culture. With possessions also in the Indian Ocean and the Caribbean, France is the only remaining political empire on which the sun never sets.

In 1997 France closed its consulate general in Honolulu -- perhaps a reflection of declining U.S. interest in the watery domain in which France still takes great pride.

A.A. Smyser is the contributing editor
and former editor of the the Star-Bulletin
His column runs Tuesday and Thursday.

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