The Pacific: prosperity from a superpower contest?

United States 50, China 8. No, not rugby. Officials at the Pacific Islands Forum last week.

The Pacific is stocked with fish, has lots of minerals in places and not many people — and the majority of those are Melanesian, with societies, economies and governments that are struggling out of tribalism and bare subsistence. Just the place for superpowers.

While George Bush was distracted by his War on Terror, China altered course in its pursuit of Pacific friendship from competing with Taiwan for recognition to longer-range economic security: food and minerals. China does not want to be too dependent on Australia for minerals and is scanning the globe for access to land and sea for food. New Zealand is in its sights.

When Hillary Clinton was appointed Secretary of State (foreign minister) in 2009 she backed State Department professionals’ bid to re-engage in Asia and the Pacific. That means both competing with and trying to be friends with China: a challenging balance.

In early March Clinton told the Senate there is now “unbelievable” competition from China for influence in the small island states that make up the Pacific. She said China was “expending enormous amounts of money and has a huge diplomatic presence” in the region.

Clinton has responded to this with direct action in the island states, including more aid — and a new US Aid post in Papua New Guinea where China is keen to get access to the huge mineral resources — plus those 50 delegates to last week’s forum, from the White House and a range of agencies.

The other response has been indirect: being nicer to New Zealand because it is an influential developed nation in the region. Clinton came in person last November. A substantial delegation turned up to the bilateral dialogue in Christchurch in February.

While the Bush Administration was fixated on the War on Terror, New Zealand (with Bush’s “deputy sheriff”, Australia) was expected to defend and promote stability in the island states, particularly Melanesia including coup-prone Fiji. As the Obama Administration has re-engaged in the Asia-Pacific, New Zealand has become, in addition, a target in its hearts-and-minds contest with China.

This is welcome to John Key and Murray McCully, keen to tighten the shared-values alignment and warm the security and trading relationship. China gives New Zealand better access to officials and politicians at high level than does the United States and has a free trade agreement (though some business heads say it is not yet delivering its behind-the-border promise).

The good news for the island states from this United States-China contest is more aid. Most desperately need it on many fronts: poverty, low educational participation (particularly of girls), unsustainably high population growth and so high unemployment (particularly of young men), weak and corrupt governmental systems.

Last December’s report by Parliament’s foreign affairs, defence and trade committee is a bleak snapshot. Polynesian Samoa, in our erstwhile empire, is a standout exception.

The McCully-Key response has been a rough-shod refocusing of aid on economic development and cuts in aid going through non-government agencies, which McCully says grew complacent, and in peripheral activities, such as human rights.

Peripheral? Not so, said the formidable Shamima Ali, who runs Fiji’s women’s crisis centre, at a one-day pre-forum conference run by the Sydney-based Lowy Institute with Motu Economic and Public Policy Research. Unmistakably targeting McCully, she said human rights are integral to development. Some Arabs would agree.

Other critics of McCully (and they are numerous) say addressing poverty is also critical to economic development. Key did in a way address that in announcing with Julia Gillard more education aid. Uneducated people are of limited use to economic developers.

And, as the China-United States contest shows and the forum’s meeting theme of prosperity underlined, there are economic opportunities: minerals on land in some countries; ocean floor minerals; huge exclusive economic zones (EEZs) reasonably flush with fish (contrast the ravaged northern hemisphere zones); agriculture growing capacity; abundant cheap labour. Add in tourism: these islands are all warm.

An issue is to ensure the island states get the benefits and don’t just go through another colonisation, this time by foreign capital. The Papua New Guinea government has suggested local tribes should own the minerals. (Iwi agree.) Andrew Abel told the Lowy conference his enterprise brings international surfers to Papua New Guinea’s beaches, paying a levy to local communities.

Ensuring island states capture the benefits is also logically part of aid, discussed at the forum: policing EEZs to stop rogue fishers and building ports and airports, for example.

China and the United States (and Australia and New Zealand) therefore have good work to do. Ironically, superpower competition may be promoting just that.