The Impact of the War on Terrorism on Island State Security: Navigating Instabilities


19-21 July 2005 Honolulu, Hawaii




On July 19-21, 2005, the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (APCSS) and Pacific Islands Development Program (PIDP), East-West Center, co-sponsored the conference on the impact of the war on terrorism on island state security. The conference was the fourth in the series of biennial conferences held by the APCSS on some aspect of island state security, but the first to be formally co-sponsored with another organization, and the 100th Conference organized by the APCSS. The conscious aim of the conference was to develop and engage in a policy-oriented and practitioner-focused dialogue on terrorism and other transnational security issues.  The conference was also meant to draw together experts from both Oceania and Southeast Asia in an effort to analyze the crossovers between these regions in actual communication as well as experiences in addressing the transnational security agenda.

The main findings of the conference follow:

General Summary and Findings

  • In general, the threat of terrorism for the Pacific Island Countries (PICs) is low. However, participants pointed to potential threats and spillovers from Southeast Asia. Speakers highlighted the Bali bombing in particular as a warning that the PICs are not exempt from the threat. The current appraisal relating to spillovers from Southeast Asia was also low, but the discussions were both free of hyperbole as well as not downplaying the overall concern. As to Southeast Asia specifically, one speaker noted that Osama Bin Laden has in fact directly mentioned East Timor as example of dismemberment of an Islamic country.  The Timorese view this mention as a latent threat to themselves.
  • The major threat is the vulnerability of PICs to use as  transit points to other countries. This vulnerability is a clear recognition of the lack of resources for addressing problems related to border control, customs, immigration, port control, and airport security. While developed countries have focused on technical fixes, more advantage might be taken from using the social networks rather than technical solutions. Using the social network of small societies to communicate to the authorities the movement of strangers or unusual behavior may be a more effective way to conduct surveillance and gather information than computerized databases and X-ray machines. The issue here is how to translate such “traditional” information to more “modern” societies.
  • It’s not just about terrorism. Rather than a strict focus on terrorism, there was general recognition that the battle to curb terrorism was best achieved by placing terrorism within a broader range of transnational threats requiring even more creativity and comprehensiveness in our responses to those threats. Security threats were described in two strands—external (transnational crime and terrorism) and internal (issues of governance, economic development and corruption). Vulnerabilities and weaknesses internally created an atmosphere more conducive to the external threats.
  • A two-way process is needed so PICs can express their priorities. The international community has provided a great deal of punishments but far too few incentives in dealing with the threat of terrorism. There are international obligations now put upon the PICs that they would not have agreed to of their own free will. However, the focus on technological improvements to enhance security misses the resources gap between developed nations and the PICs. Tuvalu, for example, has a single fax machine for the entire government, and no government email service. Another speaker noted that perhaps those of us outside of Oceania need to listen more closely to what the PICs are saying in their own regional proposals. The example presented was that in 1974, Samoa submitted a proposal for consideration of a regional court of appeal. This could be seen as implying some vulnerability in the national judicial system.
  • Compliance to international standards can be a benefit, not just a burden. While many speakers focused on the burden placed on PICs to comply with many of the requirements regarding airport and port security especially, other speakers noted that such compliance to new demands also had benefits. Certainly, noncompliance virtually assured financial loss, but long-term financial benefit could be found in compliance. It was noted that governments frequently put millions into decorative improvements to their airports to increase tourism revenue, and that increasing security measures were simply another facet of this program (albeit far more important).
  • Better, not more, cooperation and comprehensive perspectives are needed. Rather than discussing the “relinquishing” of a country’s sovereignty, we should focus on the voluntary nature of regional cooperation, as well as the benefits that can develop with the pooling of talent and resources on the part of the PICs. Facing the question of “how do nations build long-term governance in the face of crisis-management,” the tentative answers highlighted that these issues had more than one “root cause,” and therefore more than one response was required. The long-term potential of regional institutions should be acknowledged, and their presence in the international system could serve as a more culturally-sensitive complement to international organizations.
  • Too often “good” is equated with “easy” when it comes to regional cooperation. Regional and International Institutions (United Nations, Pacific Islands Forum, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the ASEAN Regional Forum) discussed at the conference were frequently criticized for not doing enough. One speaker noted that far too often the evaluation of cooperation being “good” or not was tied to whether it was “easy” to achieve, which is perhaps, exactly the opposite way that we should consider it. Both developed nations and the PICs need to prioritize what meetings, what arenas for communication are valuable rather than continuing on institutional inertia.
  • Developed countries need to listen better, PICs need to communicate better. Some island representatives mentioned in passing that many regional meetings consisted of Australia and New Zealand talking to each other, while the islanders stayed quiet, noting this was a cultural norm. Regardless of how strong that norm is (which is debatable) it is important for both sides of this discussion to actually engage with each other. Developed countries may need to better understand what is required by the island states, but this will happen best if the islanders communicate those priorities.
  • PICs need to beware of the lure of money. Bureaucratic logic would dictate that an institution go in search for resources. Cynically, this means, to paraphrase one presenter speaking in humor, “perhaps the islands need to find WMD” to get resources.” While some of this funding has overall benefits for the PICs (in improving their airport security, for example), “finding WMD” (or evidence of terrorist activity) is attention that is definitely not wanted.
  • Developed countries must figure out how to take advantage of traditional knowledge and social networks. In small societies, the social networks are the best intelligence gathering systems there are. How to develop the trust to get that information by the authorities (and how to send and share that with other countries) may be the most important “next step” in enhancing the regional security architecture in Oceania. Developing and initiating a program on community policing and nontechnical intelligence/information sharing methodology would be beneficial in that aspect.

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