Pacific Island leaders upbeat after Bush talks
By Curtis Lum
Advertiser Staff Writer
Leaders of 13 Pacific Island governments had a rare meeting with the president of the United States Thursday, and while George W. Bush made no promises of aid, the leaders said they were encouraged by his interest in their island issues.
The delegates concluded the two-day 7th Pacific Islands Conference of Leaders yesterday at the East-West Center.
The highlight was a private one-hour meeting with Bush during his 12-hour stopover in Honolulu. Prince 'Ulukalala Lavaka Ata, prime minister of Tonga and conference chairman, characterized Bush as "very warm and very helpful" and said the meeting strengthened relationships with the United States.
The leaders discussed security and struggles against terrorism. They also talked about the environment, coral reefs, economic security and education for Pacific Islanders.
While Bush made no specific promises, he instructed his staff, including National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, who attended the meeting, to look into the leaders' concerns.
Bush assured them the United States would share any intelligence regarding threats to the island region.
The leaders will meet again before 2006 in hopes of strengthening their ties. The prince said such meetings allow them to address disagreements that arise among the nations.
"There are big islands and there are small islands, and there are bound to be differences," Ata said. "The way that we perceive things in the south of the Pacific may not be the same as that of the northern Pacific countries. That's part of the process. You have to agree on what we can do to help each other."
Sitiveni Halapua, director of East-West Center's Pacific Islands Development Program, added that the countries' problems represent a "new level of maturity," because many have been free from "colonial masters" for only 30 to 40 years.
"Now we have Pacific Islanders reasserting themselves and dealing with the differences and the difficulties they did not have before, because it was something handed over by the colonial administrations," Halapua said. "Maturity means more differences coming out. Now we have Pacific Island political leaders, private entrepreneurs, educators debating the differences and trying to move forward."
Reach Curtis Lum at 525-8025 or firstname.lastname@example.org.