Feb 22, 2019 Last Updated 5:09 AM, Feb 20, 2019

FIVE countries and one region are going to the polls this year to get a fresh and new mandate from their electorate, and while this will no doubt provide interesting results, the trend to watch though in 2019 may be something beyond the result that comes out of the ballot box. How China pushes its influence through its much touted Belt and Road Initiative through and over the islands of Oceania is predicted to be the development that will keep analysts and commentators busy over the coming months.

Ramification of the paradigm shift in the world’s geopolitics has been felt in some parts of the Pacific very early in 2019. The region’s first woman leader of an independent state in the Pacific, President Hilda Hein of the Marshall Islands narrowly survived a confidence motion against her in her island’s legislature and she accused China for influencing her opponents to introduce the motion. The country she leads is one of the five that will be holding general elections during the year, and for someone who came into power by default, her bid to win another new term from the electorate will be closely followed.

January also saw a whirlwind tour of Vanuatu and Fiji by Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison. He stayed away from last year’s Pacific Islands Forum Leaders summit in Nauru, so the decision to do island hopping intrigued not a few observers of regional politics. The disquiet about China’s growing influence in the islands, and its championing of its Belt and Road Initiative with millions of Yuan of aid no doubt was one of the factors that prompted the visit.

News that Vanuatu had entered into a $130m aid agreement with China during the summit President Xi Jinping held with Pacific Island leaders at the margins of the Asia Pacific Economic Council meeting that Papua New Guinea hosted last November no doubt triggered alarm bells in Canberra. Fiji on the other hand had indicated its willingness to partner with Australia, not Beijing in the development of its military training base near Nadi International Airport, on the west coast of the country’s main island.

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THE rise and rise of Australia’s new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has revived relations with the Pacific Islands. While there is continuity with many of the core policies promoted by former conservative leader Tony Abbott, the Turnbull government is seeking to change the tone of Australia’s international engagement.

The appointment of Queenslander Steven Ciobo as Minister for International Development and the Pacific is an important re-affirmation of Australia’s commitment to the islands. Despite this, many of the institutions that support Australian engagement with the region - from volunteer programmes to Radio Australia and the Bureau of Meteorology - have suffered structural damage over recent years.

Declining budget revenues, with falling prices for iron ore and other mineral exports, will constrain Australia’s engagement with the islands region. There are a number of looming headaches for the Turnbull government, at a time when the regional architecture of the Pacific is rapidly changing.

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Focus on tourist arrivals

WITH visitor arrivals up 6.1 per cent in the first three quarters of 2015, Samoa will increase momentum in the tourism industry this year. A series of roadshows in the middle of 2015 to Australia and New Zealand were designed to boost tourism figures in line with the opening of a five-star resort off the capital, Apia.

Arrivals from most of Samoa’s source markets have risen and the industry is held back only by the lack of infrastructure.In an interview last year, Tourism Samoa CEO Sonja Hunter, reflected on the need for greater capacity at Faleolo International Airport and better schedules for flights. Airport expansion works have since begun with Chinese Government funding. Current schedules mean visitors arrive very early in the morning after several hours of travelling.

Like most of the Pacific, Samoa will look increasingly towards China for visitors, despite the troubles at home with Asian investors. Remittances continue to play a large role in the economy – up 5.6 per cent in 2014 with expectations of further growth – with Samoans living in large numbers in New Zealand and the United States’ West Coast.

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AFTER the 2015 general elections returned him to power, Enele Sopoaga is expected to spend the year pursuing development strategies and projects. Climate change negotiations and devastations caused by Cyclone Pam last March took up most of his time the past year and with general elections not expected until 2019, and unless his majority in the 15-member island legislature evaporated overnight necessitating a confidence vote, Sopoaga will work on consolidating his support from 2016.

He had boosted his capital budget in 2015, channelling funds to construct new schools, government offices and outer island projects. Like its northern neighbour, high fish license fees meant a budget surplus, and although his government had budgeted a deficit of A$0.4 million for 2015, the Asian Development Bank says the island treasury is actually running at a surplus of A$14.3m.

The bank says this money will go into Tuvalu’s trust fund. Money from the Tuna Treaty with the US is fuelling the budget surplus, says the ADB and has predicted that the 2% growth rate for 2015 is likely to continue into 2016.

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Small kingdom, BIG risk

WITH an extremely thin export base, Tonga’s economy is heavily reliant on agriculture and fisheries. Expect little change to the economy in 2016 as Prime Minister ‘Akilisi Pohiva struggles to maintain power in his second year in office with continued sniping from his detractors inside and outside the Legislature. Squash, vanilla beans, and yams continue to be the main crops for this Pacific kingdom with agricultural products, including fish, making up two-thirds of total exports.

While Tonga has reasonably maintained infrastructure – roads, airports, jetties –its development is stifled by reliance on the generosity of Japan and China. Most of its food is imported from New Zealand leading to a huge import bill which is only slightly offset by remittances from overseas Tongans and the receipts from around 39,000 visitors.

Unlike its neighbours Fiji and Samoa, Tonga has a rather under-developed tourism sector with efforts being made to boost the industry and put to good use the opportunities which exist. Pohiva’s government has emphasized the development of the private sector, encouraged development and committed increased funds for health and education.

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Tony Wilson

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