Shoring up regional interests in South Pacific. Islands aim to move beyond `coconut economies'

For some nations, rising sea levels may mean losing a few beachfront homes or hotels, but here in the Pacific Ocean, whole countries face extinction. Consider Kiribati - a nation of 65,000 perched on a string of low-lying coral atolls.

``If what the scientists are saying is true, within 50 to 60 years, there are countries like my country which will no longer be there,'' says Ieremia Tabai, a Kiribati resident.

As many as 500,000 ``greenhouse'' refugees could result from the Pacific and Indian Ocean islands made uninhabitable. The implication of global climatic changes was but one topic discussed in Tonga this week by presidents and prime ministers from 15 nations at a South Pacific Forum meeting.

Since its founding in 1971, the forum has become the paramount political organization in the region. In years past, the forum produced the controversial South Pacific Nuclear Freeze Zone Treaty which bans nuclear weapons testing and radioactive waste dumping. It has called on France to give independence to the nation's colony of New Caledonia. The forum's fishing agency was instrumental in securing a $60 million tuna-fishing treaty with the United States last year.

This year, a foot-dragging Japan was chastised by forum members and urged to follow the US in negotiating a similar multilateral fishing access treaty.

Indeed, economic - not political - issues are increasingly dominating the forum's docket.

Forum members also decided to beef up the South Pacific Bureau for Economic Cooperation. This agency bolsters regional trade and investment and speeds small business development with assistance from Australia and New Zealand, the more industrialized forum members.

Moving from aid-dependent ``coconut economies'' toward self-sufficiency is challenging. Vast distances to export markets, high freight charges, poor communications, and limited resources and skills create formidable hurdles for Pacific nations. Still, some progress is being made.

The forum endorsed a satellite telecommunications project designed to facilitate communications within and between the Pacific island nations. Australia sweetened an already welcome deal by kicking in $2.6 million (Australian; US $2 million) toward a controlling ground station in Sydney.

Due to two coups in Fiji, a riot in Vanuatu, and demonstrations in New Caledonia, island tourism has fallen off. In response, the forum will fund a study to coordinate tourism development in the region. Australia has also informally promised to work toward increasing the number of airline flights to Vanuatu, according to a senior government official.

Last year the Federated States of Micronesia (a United Nations trust territory under United States administration until 1986) and the Republic of the Marshall Islands (also a former UN trust territory) became full members of the forum. This year the two central Pacific states were invited to sign the South Pacific Regional Trade and Economic Cooperation Agreement, which includes such trade benefits as duty-free access for exports to Australia and New Zealand.

Forum members welcome the increased emphasis on economics.

``What makes political independence meaningful is an economic base that gives the people of the region a quality of life and dignity,'' says Asterio Takesy, deputy secretary of external affairs for Micronesia.

The only potential divisive political issue - a diplomatic tiff between Australia and Fiji - was kept off the forum agenda. Last week, Australia's new foreign affairs minister, Gareth Evans, canceled a planned visit to Fiji when the ruling military regime suddenly denied him access to Timoci Bavadra, the prime minister deposed in a 1987 coup. Australia's prime minister, Bob Hawke, declared that his country ``won't be pushed around.'' He hinted that $10 million (A; US $8 million) in aid to Fiji could be in jeopardy.

A meeting between Mr. Hawke and Fiji Prime Minister Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara settled the spat. Fiji backed down, and Mr. Evans will visit Mr. Bavadara next month in Fiji.

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