Island State Security 2003: “Oceania at the Crossroads”

(15-17 July, 2003)


Executive Summary: The Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (APCSS) held its third Island State Security Conference on 15-17 July 2003. The conscious aim of the conference was to develop and engage in a policy-oriented and practitioner-focused dialogue. Coinciding with discussions in the region on intervention into the Solomon Islands led by Australia, the conference certainly proved meaningful and timely. The main points drawn from the conference included the following:


·        The events of 9/11, the Bali Bombing, and the War in Iraq seem to represent a shift in the international system; a shift that has changed things even in Oceania. None of the participants considered the possibility of terrorism within the Pacific Island Countries to be a likely threat, but transnational terrorism and its effects have had other consequences for the island states.  The decision by Australia to lead a mission of “cooperative intervention” into the Solomon Islands with the assistance of New Zealand and other Pacific Island Countries (PICs) would have been unthinkable as little as three years ago. Perhaps even more notable is the decision by the Solomon Islands Parliament to issue a clear and unanimous invitation for the intervention to restore law and order. Although placed on the negotiating table before the events of 9/11, the discussions between the United States with the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) and the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) on both strengthening immigration procedures as well as establishing Joint Economic Management Committees (JEMCOs) for oversight on the economic assistance given to the FSM and RMI under the Compact of Free Association were accepted (and in the case of the JEMCOs, even welcomed) with little fanfare or protest. These events may not signal a trend that PICs will generally be more willing or open to ask for such direct assistance, it would seem that larger countries are today more willing to provide it, should such an invitation come.


·        A conclusion of the 2001 Conference was that the nation-state in Oceania is still young and fragile. The subsequent two years has only strengthened this conclusion. Many participants criticized the characterization of some of the island states as “failed states,” but for some the source of the criticism was that these island entities were never viable states to begin with, so could not therefore be “failing.”


·        While there was some debate that cooperative intervention was the new catchphrase for preemption, others noted the strenuous efforts being made to receive an unambiguous, formal invitation by the Solomons Government. (The last day of the conference coincided with the passage of just such a resolution). Furthermore, the necessity for regional support and participation by states other than New Zealand could not be stressed enough. The value of other islanders in such operations as East Timor and Bougainville were noted, as was the presence of Maoris in the New Zealand Defence Force. The presence of such neutral parties can offer needed breathing space for those involved in the conflict, but this can only be done if the “outsiders” come in with significant cultural understanding, and not ride in with arrogance.


·        The larger powers acting in the island states will be subject to charges of neocolonialism by someone—be it the media, island governments, communities, or nongovernmental organizations. These charges are probably inevitable at one point or another, but they are unhelpful for the policy debate. The accusation could potentially freeze negotiation and discussion rather than move debate and action forward.


·        One size does not fit all, but too often, the PICs are seen as “all alike,” and subsequently a blanket policy approach is applied. We ignore the diversity of the region (and within the island states in the region) at our peril. Taking this point into account, then, action will be most effective in a manner cognizant of the local culture(s) involved. Such an approach will require much deep study and information, but would further enhance communication between PICs and the larger nations and increase the effectiveness of policy formulation and implementation.


·        The concept of “restorative justice” is an attempt to foster and encourage culturally sensitive and pragmatically beneficial methods of dispute resolution and reconciliation. The experience in Papua New Guinea attempts to draw in some of these traditional, rural notions of justice and incorporate them into the more formal, urban legislative forms; and it has done so with some success. An effective restorative justice program requires, however, a deep understanding of the culture and values of the society one is operating in. This fact does not make restorative justice programs compatible to the “one size fits all” policy approach big countries implement (intentionally or otherwise).


·        A recurring theme drawn from many of the Fellows of the APCSS Executive Course who attended the conference was that the recognized need for greater cultural understanding and regional cooperation in fact formed the heart of the Center’s mission. One participant noted that the Center was one of the few regional institutions that took the “Pacific” in the “Asia-Pacific” seriously.