Reflecting on this year’s successful Pacific Forum Leaders’ Summit in the idyllic island paradise of the Cook Islands, one might ask if we are witnessing a renaissance in this long-overlooked region. The presence of leaders from Australia, New Zealand, the US, Pacific Islands and senior officials from the People’s Republic of China and UN Women suggests that something is afoot.
The announcement of a 10-year, $320 million Pacific Gender Initiative by the Australian government and a unique partnership between China and New Zealand to finance water supply and sanitation improvements in the Cook Islands gave further reason to think that the future may be brighter in what U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton referred to as the “half of Asia-Pacific that does not always get the attention it deserves.” Three years after the “Cairns Compact,” is the situation on the ground evolving or are we just spectators at a 21st century version of Kipling’s “Great Game”—one played out over vast oceans rather than barren steppes? As such things go, the answer is slightly more nuanced than the guest list in Rarotonga might suggest.
The Pacific region is defined by its ocean, but it is also isolated by it. The cost of this isolation has been reduced rates of growth over the long-term with non-resource rich Pacific islands nations growing at around 1% per annum over the past decade, far less than population growth. Small land areas and isolation are also major contributors to fragility in the region. Transport, energy and communication costs in the Pacific’s small islands and isolated rural regions are among the highest in the world.
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• Stephen P. Groff is Vice-President for East Asia, Southeast Asia and the Pacific at the Asian Development Bank in Manila.