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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, March 31, 2002

Pacific islands: sitting ducks for terrorists

 •  Pacific islands: sitting ducks for terrorists

By John Griffin

You have to hope that our war on terrorism will have the side benefit of bringing more attention and aid to the too-often neglected Pacific islands beyond Hawai'i.

The Pacific islands are again a place with potential problems for U.S. secutiry interests.
And how about Hawai'i doing its part in helping increasingly troubled islands deal with their even deeper internal problems? Those include ethnic differences, mismanagement, corruption and waste of foreign aid.

Even more than our nation itself, Hawai'i has an obligation. We are part of this vast "oceanic continent" of islands and water covering a third of the globe.

Yet the misnamed "Pacific" islands are often overlooked because many Americans see only Asia, and Hawai'i people turn toward the U.S. Mainland for understandable reasons, not to mention gambling in Las Vegas.

The United States' paramount interest in the Pacific islands has always been strategic. And it has ebbed and flowed with the various challenges.

That was true as the last century dawned, when we sought naval stations and colonial footholds in acquiring Hawai'i, American Samoa and Guam. It continued through both world wars and the Cold War.

The unfunny joke now is that Washington's focus went from "strategic denial" of island footholds for the

Soviet Union and communist China to "strategic neglect" after the Cold War ended.

Only such transnational crimes as drug running, immigrant smuggling and money laundering by a few islands aroused interest as our national leaders looked to the Balkans, the Mideast, and sometimes to Asia's bigger problems.

Then came Sept. 11.

Obviously, the major American interest in the war against terrorism remains elsewhere: South Asia, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, with North Korea a kind of non-Muslim associate member in the "Axis of Evil." The U.S. Pacific Command, based in Hawai'i, has had plenty to do.

But the Pacific islands have at least come back on Washington's map as a place with both potential problems for U.S. security interests and maybe even economic and social needs we have neglected.

Arc of instability

Fathur Al-Ghozi, arrested in the Philippines a month ago, is a suspect in a bombing that killed 22.

Advertiser library photo • Feb. 27, 2002

Early on, Gerard Finin, an East-West Center specialist on Pacific islands, was among those who warned that the islands are a potential "back door" from which terrorist attacks could be organized or launched. He cited the ease in obtaining passports, dubious offshore banking operations and poor security.

Helping make the point was the Israeli commando seizure of an allegedly Iranian-supported gun-running ship taking arms to the Palestinian militants and sailing under a Tongan flag.

On the bigger picture, Robert Kiste, director of the Center for Pacific Island Studies at the University of Hawai'i, says an "arc of instability" stretches from coup-prone Fiji in the central Pacific across much of troubled Melanesia to the big neighboring nations of Indonesia and the Philippines, where terrorism is an active concern.

In Melanesia, the Solomon Islands already are called a "failed state" by Kiste and others.

Fiji, once a respected regional leader, vast Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu are stumbling and could fall into similar chaos where their governments lose control.

In the face of all this, one respected regional expert I talked with fears that the war on terrorism will increase rather than decrease Washington's high degree of neglect of the Pacific islands.

Others are more hopeful. They cite the likely return of the Peace Corps and other aid to some islands abandoned by Washington in the 1990s. New agreements with U.S.-dependent states in Micronesia could bring them help and needed reforms.

Pockets of promise

Terrorism is a concern in the Philippines, where Muslim guerrillas have been linked to the al-Qaida network. This house in Basilan province was caught in a crossfire between soldiers and rebels.

Advertiser library photo • June 4, 2001

Finin sees pockets of promise. He cites an underappreciated fishing agreement Washington is redoing with various island states. And he says Tuvalu, Polynesia's smallest nation, with 10,000 people on eight islands, could be an example of how "small is viable" in the age of globalization. (He's giving a talk on that subject Tuesday at the center.)

On a larger scale, a visiting U.S. State Department official recently hinted at increased American involvement in the islands. He spoke at a meeting of the Joint Commercial Commission, a U.S. and island nation economic development group based at the East-West Center.

Leaders of island nations also held their annual conference at the center last month. Terrorism was on the agenda but internal problems even more so.

Again, the Pacific islands seem far from the main events in the war on terrorism. But they and their growing problems cannot be overlooked. A leading journalist in Australia (which, with New Zealand, is our more-active partner in Pacific matters) recently wrote:

"What is needed is not an increased security presence, but a diplomatic one, with Washington providing the big stick that Canberra lacks to prevent unrest in Fiji, Vanuatu or the Solomons from infecting the entire Pacific."

Kiste of UH concludes: "Small and remote as the islands are, history has shown that they can assume a strategic importance far beyond their size at critical junctions, and there is no reason to think this could not be the case again."

Lack of concern in Hawai'i

So where does that leave Hawai'i?

A number of organizations are involved with Pacific islands in varying degrees. They include UH, East-West Center, the Pentagon-supported Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, the nonprofit Pacific Forum/CSIS, the private Pacific and Asian Affairs Council and others, such as businesses. Tens of thousands of folks from other islands live here.

Still, Hawai'i lacks what I would call a broad constituency of concern about the other islands among its movers and shakers. Relatively few of our leaders in government and business have been to a single non-Hawaiian Pacific island, not even Guam or Samoa. Most couldn't find Fiji on a map.

Yet other islanders look to Hawai'i as a gateway, a friendly neighbor, a place for meetings, jobs, healthcare — even leadership. Many of their leaders and professionals were educated here.

They often see us as part of the Pacific islands family, one that needs help in these difficult times. Too often, we are looking the other way.

John Griffin is a frequent contributor and former editor of The Advertiser's editorial pages.