TARAWA, KIRIBATI — THE SOUTH PACIFIC is going international. The few days since the 1989 South Pacific Forum - a gathering of 15 Pacific island leaders earlier this month - provide the latest confirmation of the trend. For the first time, countries from outside the region were invited to a post-forum dialogue. Government delegates flocked from the United States, Japan, France, Canada, and the United Kingdom to discuss aid, trade, and regional issues.
These and other nations are beefing up their diplomatic ties in the region and backing them with substantial hikes in assistance.
Japan's development-project aid, for example, soared to $68 million in 1987 - a four-fold increase over the last five years. This compares to a 1.5-fold rise in Japan's overseas development aid worldwide.
The US plans to increase development aid from $4 million to $8 million annually over the next five years.
Meanwhile, countries with little or no presence in the region are raising their profile.
Israel opened its first embassy in Fiji last year. In the past 18 months, it has established diplomatic ties with 10 Pacific island states.
This year, the Soviet Union established formal diplomatic ties with Papua New Guinea. A new Soviet embassy will open there early next year.
This spurt in aid, trade, and diplomatic attention rises from two basic catalysts: decolonization and the 1982 Law of the Sea Treaty.
Many Pacific island states have achieved independence in the last decade or two. As these countries mature politically, foreign policies independent of former colonial rulers are developing.
``The island countries are looking outward,'' says Edward Dillery, an assistant secretary in the US State Department. ``Countries are responding and being more interested in the area because island countries have indicated a desire to have that kind of relationship.''
The South Pacific Forum Secretariat will be seeking, for example, to establish ties with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
A key ASEAN member, Indonesia, is likely to be added to the dialogue meeting guest list next year, says Cook Islands Prime Minister Geoffrey Henry.
Another internationalizing factor is that these scattered islands have become the recognized owners of vast marine and as yet undeveloped seabed resources with the establishment of 200-mile exclusive economic zones. Major fishing nations such as Japan, the US, and the Soviet Union must be on good terms with these countries to gain access to their fish.
Australia remains the biggest aid donor in the region. Excluding the $225 million in annual budgetary assistance to Papua New Guinea, a former colony, Australia gave $80 million in fiscal year 1988-89. That's up 20 percent over the previous year and reflects its increased focus on the region. Indeed, Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans has just finished his second tour through the region in less than a year.
Japan's regional aid now ranks second only to that of Australia.
``Japan's aid flows reflect a burden-sharing role encouraged by the US and a more active commercial presence,'' notes Peter Drysdale of Australia National University's Australia-Japan Research Centre. In addition to fishing interests, Japan is investing heavily in real estate, hotels, and tourism-related projects.
Japan has been criticized for giving aid with commercial strings attached. For example, it may offer money for a water supply system or airport improvement but only for a specific design built by a Japanese firm. But that's changing, notes Mr. Drysdale. This year, grant aid is expected to increase nearly 50 percent from 1988 figures.