fear UK is 'quitting the Pacific'
IN A tour of the South Pacific
shortly after Britain
announced it was cutting back its diplomatic representation in the region, the
Rev Brian Macdonald-Milne, Vice-Chairman of the Pacific Islands Society, found a
deep and universal disappointment among the Islanders.
“The general feeling is that Britain
is abandoning the Pacific,” he told The Outrigger. “The government has given
the impression it doesn’t care any more.”
The announcement of the impending closure of high commissions in three Island
countries and a reduction of staff closely followed Britain’s
withdrawal from the Pacific Community, formerly the South Pacific Commission,
which it helped to set up in 1947 to promote regional development.
In his two months’ tour of Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji and Hawaii in
which he talked to Islanders at all levels, Fr Brian, as he is known widely in
Melanesia, found the Islanders dismayed they would lose out in many ways
through the lack of day-to-day contact with Britain.
It was not just the question of aid. British high commissioners and
their staff were “very good at getting to know the people”, said Fr Brian. They
traveled widely, and were able to give personal support and advice that was
much appreciated by Islanders.
is also seen in some countries as a counter-balance to the influence of Australia
and France. And
the British government stood to lose background knowledge of the countries.
physical withdrawal is irresponsible, especially in countries where we have a
common link through history,” Fr Brian said. The lack of bilateral contact
could not be matched by the European Union through which most of British aid
was now channeled.
The three Pacific high commissions chosen for the axe - Tonga,
Vanuatu and Kiribati
— were among 21 around the world earmarked for closure. Kiribati
has now been shut down; Vanuatu
is due to close in October, and Tonga
in March 2006.
high commission in Fij,
which already looks after Tuvalu,
States of Micronesia, Marshal Islands and Palau,
will cover the work of the closed posts
Among the first to react was Kiribati
reopened its high commission in 2002, much to local delight, after a shut-down
for eight years. In talks in London
earlier this year, the Vice-President, Teima Onorio, expressed her government’s
made it known to London that it
feared a power vacuum resulting from the British action, according to the Fiji
Times in July. Foreign Minister Kaliopate Tavola said that rivalry between China
and Taiwan, as
well as Japan
could spill over into the Pacific and cause another Cold War.
Members of the House of Lords and other influential public figures
interested in the Pacific are being enlisted by the Pacific Islands Society to
help fight the cutback.
Chairman Michael Walsh told the society’s AGM in May that the closures
had made the society’s role all that much more significant.
The British Friends of Vanuatu had planned to protest to Bill Rammell
MP, then Minister responsible for the Pacific, only to have the meeting
cancelled by the election campaign. In a letter to the Daily Telegraph, Richard
Dorman, former British High Commissioner in Vanuatu,
stressed that the country remained one of the least developed in the world.
This was underlined by Charles Drace-Francis, former British High
Commissioner in Port Moresby. He
told The Outrigger: “Although Britain
currently gives only a few thousand pounds aid a year to Papua
New Guinea, the country suffers just as much
from poverty and deprivation as the African states.”
Other former British diplomats had equally strong views. Vernon
Scarborough, recently retired from the Kiribati
post, said the UK
continued to bear heavy moral commitment to the three Island Commonwealth members. Overall
savings on aid was paltry, but “damage to our mutual interests in the Pacific
The churches in the UK
came in for criticism from the Bishop of Exeter, the Rt Rev Michael Langrish,
who is chairman of the Melanesian Mission (UK).
“Increasingly, the UK
seems to be turning its back on nations that it left with little strength and
support at the time of independence”, he wrote in the mission’s newsletter.
“This is both sad and deeply worrying.
“Even more so is a feeling in Melanesia that the
churches in the UK
are following the same trend.”
A Foreign Office spokesman said the government had embarked on the
global reorganisation, both in the UK
and abroad, to align its resources more effectively to Britain’s
“We have not undertaken these changes lightly”, he said. “But the
Foreign and Commonwealth Office, like other global foreign services, must keep
pace with a rapidly-changing international environment. The overseas network
needs to respond in kind, moving resources to where they are most needed”.