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Ups and downs of
Britain’s strategy


· Lord Caithness, British Foreign Office Minister; announces new aid plan for Pacific


• Decision taken to withdraw from South Pacific Commission

• Diplomatic post in Kiribati closed


UK warns of cuts in bilateral aid


• Funding to SPC cut off

Britain criticises ‘lack of commitment’ by Island governments on sustainable development


Britain rejoins the Pacific Community (formerly SPC), and gives £100,000 to mark its golden jubilee

• Robin Cook, British Foreign Secretary, holds Commonwealth Pacific summit in Edinburgh


• British bilateral aid reduced to £3m for year

·  UK
reviews Pacific diplomatic posts but decides not to close any.


• Bilateral aid to be phased out altogether


· High commission in Kiribati reopens


·UK to withdraw from Pacific Community


• Funding for Pacific Community ends

UK to clean up of Christmas Island nuclear debris


• British Foreign Office starts closing residential missions in Kiribati, Vanuatu and Tonga




 From Issue 49, Summer 2005

    Islanders 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.

      The UK 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.

      “Britain’s 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.

     Britain’s high commission in Fij, which already looks after Tuvalu, Nauru, Federated States of Micronesia, Marshal Islands and Palau, will cover the work of the closed posts

      Among the first to react was Kiribati where Britain 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 “grave regrets”.

      Fiji has 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 and China 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 is great”.

      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 priorities.

      “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”.



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