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S. Pacific States Mull World Role

Concerns about environment, China trade, South Africa dominate regional conference

THE nations of the South Pacific are starting to look beyond their region at global issues.This broader view was apparent this week when the 15 nations which make up the South Pacific Forum met for their annual meeting. When the leaders finally ended two days of closed-door meetings, they had covered a range of topics including global climate change, biodiversity, the need for continued reform in South Africa, and how to deal with the two Chinas - Taiwan and the People's Republic. Of course, the Forum nations focused on "the Pacific aspect" to the above problems, says Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, the prime minister of Fiji. Unlike industrialized nations to the north, South Pacific nations think of the sea when they think of pollution. "Our environment is not only our land, it is our sea as well. Our sustenance comes mainly from the sea," says Mr. Ratu Mara. The islands, for example, receive $50 million annually from United States-based companies for fishing rights. In some countries this is 30 to 40 percent of the annual budget. But in recent years South Pacific nations have come to see the sea as their greatest threat. In an official communique issued after the leaders met, they warned, "Global warming and sea-level rise were the most serious environmental threats to the Pacific region." To help alleviate this threat, the leaders pressed the international community to make progress on reducing the emission of "greenhouse" gases, especially carbon dioxide, which some scientists say causes global warming.

Recognizing Taiwan The forum leaders also ventured into the sticky global debate of whether to recognize Taiwan as well as the People's Republic of China (PRC). "They [the forum members] are able to see through the hyprocrisy of the 'one China' policy because [the PRC is] dealing underhanded with Taiwan to the tune of US$4 billion and [China] seems to have difficulty with us doing the same thing with Taiwan," says Ratu Mara. Of course the forum also looked at its own shorelines. It is convening a meeting of energy ministers on Aug. 29-30 to discuss the prices their islands pay for petroleum. Fiji believes it is overcharged for its imported oil. The forum marked the return of Fiji as a regional leader. Fiji appears to have patched up its differences with Australia and New Zealand. Sen. Gareth Evans, Australia's minister for foreign affairs and trade, indicated he will visit Fiji at the end of October. Economic issues also consumed the forum's attention. The leaders focused on ways to encourage the private sector to expand. In many South Pacific countries, the public sector is the largest part of their economies. Although the US is only an observer at the forum, its interest in the Pacific is hardly casual. Among its assets is Guam, where the US has a major military presence. Regional observers have suggested Guam as a possible replacement for the now-defunct Clark Air Base in the Philippines. The US is also responsible for the defense of the Federated States of Micronesia and the Marshall Islands, and it uses Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands for testing missile accuracy. The US will get a chance to express its views at the end of the week when Assistant Secretary of State Richard Solomon heads a group of US officials on a visit to the region.

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Chemical weapons issue Although the forum broadened its outlook, it wasn't dominated by a contentious issue as at past forums. Last year, the leaders protested the US chemical-weapons destruction facility on Johnston Atoll, 825 miles from Honolulu. This year, the leaders merely expressed a desire that President Bush follow through on his assurances to eliminate the facility when the US is through destroying the inventory of chemicals there. Australia took a low-profile at the conference. Prime Minister Bob Hawke could not attend this year because of a conference with the state premiers. Senator Evans was sent in his place. But Australia has agreed to fund a November regional meeting in the Cook Islands. The subject will be economic survival in the face of a slow world economy. Most of the island nations rely on fishing leases and coconut products for their income.

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