Our island influence is not specific to the Pacific
The common experience of flying into a small island is that the view from the window, until almost the last moment, is the sea. A nervous flyer can be forgiven for wondering whether the experience is a routine landing or a ditching in the ocean.
As I discovered last week, visiting two Indian Ocean island states, this first impression of a small island state is the same in the Pacific as it is in the Indian Ocean.
The Seychelles and the Maldives have their unique stories.
The Seychelles were first settled by humans at the same time Europeans began arriving on Australia’s east coast. Since then they have been touched by the British and the French, Arabia and Africa and India. As a result the Seychelles is, from a cultural perspective, a rich and diverse community and, from an ethnic perspective, a society that is spectacularly colour blind.
The Maldives are currently the chair of the South Asian Association of Regional Co-operation. This speaks to a cultural heritage that is linked to the Islamic Sub-continent. They are energetic and resourceful, having created a capital – Male – that resembles a mini Manhattan in the middle of the ocean, and a tourist industry which belies their small population and is the envy of the world.
For all the points of difference, there is much in common in the experience of life between these two countries and the small island states of the Pacific. At the core of their existence is a shared geography which defines the challenges these countries are asked to meet.
Their economies tend to revolve around tourism, fisheries and agriculture. While piracy is a far bigger issue in the Indian Ocean, effective maritime surveillance is a shared aspiration of both. Climate change looms as a threat to all with a greater intensity than is experienced almost anywhere else in the world. The first manifestation of climate change – water security – exercises the collective minds of their governments.
Every one of these countries faces higher power costs linked to transporting diesel long distances to power their electricity generators. In turn all are eagerly leading the world in basing their economies on renewable energy.
Regional co-operation among small island states is core business as critical mass is sought to attain specialised public services such as science and research or tertiary education. And regional multilateral fora which can deal with political issues are essential.
One Seychellois official observed that the Seychelles was a member of many international bodies – the African Union, the Commonwealth, the Francophonie – but first and foremost the Seychelles was a small island state. That makes sense. Because all these countries share the same fundamental challenge: how to achieve economic sustainability of a kind which meets the Millennium Development Goals with a small population on an isolated island in the middle of the ocean.
Of all the developed countries in the world, Australia along with New Zealand understand the challenges of small island countries the best. Our long association with the Pacific, both as an administrator and a development partner, has seen Australia develop a unique global expertise.
Instinctively we look to the Pacific. The majority of our population lives on Australia’s Pacific coast. We identify as a Pacific country and we see ourselves as part of Oceania.
At the same time we need to remember that we are an Indian Ocean country as well.
This week Australia will become the deputy chair of the Indian Ocean Rim Association of Regional Co-operation comprising most Indian Ocean and Indian Ocean Rim countries. In 2013 we will become the chair. This means for the next four years we will occupy a position of leadership in the region along with India during which we have an important role to play in energising Indian Ocean co-operation.
As we assume this responsibility Australia will also look to extending the experience in partnering with small island states that we have gained in the Pacific to engaging more with the island states of our other ocean – the Indian Ocean.
Beyond that, our cultural ties with the West Indies through the Commonwealth and even cricket afford the opportunity of working more with the Caribbean as well.
Becoming the developed world partner of choice for the world’s small island states is not in the same league as bringing peace to the Middle East or ending world poverty. But nor is it to be sneezed at. Twenty per cent of the nations of the world are small island states.
And as a middle power seeking to be an active member of the international community, this is a niche in global diplomacy that Australia can and should occupy.
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