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Report: 'Arc of Instability' Reaches from Papua New Guinea to Solomon Islands - 2002-09-24

Analysts in Australia are becoming increasingly concerned about the continued economic and social degeneration of the country's neighbors in the South Pacific. The so-called 'The Arc of Instability' stretches from Papua New Guinea to Fiji, Vanuatu, and the Solomon Islands. A recent report by the New Zealand government warns the region faces a long period of political instability and will need constant aid.

The report by the New Zealand government says the region is plagued by ethnic and tribal violence, separatism, economic decline and political corruption.

The long list of problems in Melanesia begins on the equator with the tiny Republic of Nauru, which is bankrupt. All the riches from its phosphate mines have gone, much of it lost in bad investments. For the first time, Nauru is receiving aid from Australia to feed its people.

In Vanuatu, a political power struggle and a police mutiny alarm the international community. In Fiji, racial tensions sparked by a nationalist coup two years ago still hinder efforts towards reconciliation.

Melanesia's most populous nation, Papua New Guinea, is struggling after a chaotic election earlier this year, in which more than 30 people were killed.

Professor Brij Lal from the Center for the Contemporary Pacific in Australia thinks the region faces an uncertain future. "I think the first thing is that the institution of the state, the power and legitimacy of the state is being challenged by people's allegiances to their race, ethnicity, region, province and so on. We now have leaders in a whole range of countries in the southwest Pacific who are embroiled in local, regional issues and do not have the vision or the skill to provide the kind of overarching leadership that these countries require," he said.

Residents of some island nations agree with these harsh assessments. John Ali, the principal administrative officer of Fiji's Labor Party, says corruption and greed cause many of the problems in the island nations.

"The power and greed is behind all of these actions. The people who have tasted the power of the state are determined to stay in power at any cost, whether it means bribing or influencing in any way or using threats," he said.

It is the chaos in the Solomon Islands that concerns Australia and New Zealand the most. Violence continues to rise, and last month, a government minister was assassinated.

Mark Otter from the University of Queensland's School of Political Science thinks the Solomons are facing a total breakdown. "The government is broke. It's a very vulnerable state being in the condition that it's in: vulnerable to all sorts of things [such as] people smuggling, toxic waste, and international crime. All sorts of things and they're the conditions that people describe as a failed state," Mr. Otter said.

Overpopulation is another looming crisis. The number of people in the region is expected to double within 25 years.

Pacific population expert, Christine McMurray, fears such rapid growth could overwhelm many services such as health and education.

"If the pattern of development stays as it is now it is certainly going to lead to increased poverty and increased urban crowding and this is why it's time I think to look at ways of averting this possible crisis," Ms. McMurray said.

The Pacific island state of Tuvalu is attempting to buck the regional trend and achieve stability through financial prudence and development of local fishing and tourism industries. Prime Minister Koloa Talake says properly managing Tuvalu's funds is the only way forward.

"We will continue to exercise prudent financial management, manage the use of our financial resources in a way that developments being made can be sustainable. We're also looking at projects that could be revenue earning," Mr. Talake said.

Despite Tuvalu's efforts to pay its own way, there is a concern this 'Arc of Instability' around eastern Australia could become a haven for organized crime syndicates involved in drug trafficking, arms smuggling and money laundering.

One senior Australian diplomat says Canberra's policy objective in the Pacific was simple - to carefully manage trouble.

Analysts say that is not enough. They recommend that foreign governments, especially Australia, stop sending aid directly to the island governments -because the money often is used improperly. Instead, they say, aid should go ground-level projects in communities and villages, to ensure that ordinary people benefit.

Mr. Ali, of Fiji's Labor Party, has another idea. He said, "The United Nations and the neighboring nations should intervene whenever there is a coup or when there is a thought of a coup. The United Nations should have a rapid deployment force and that force should come in and teach those dictators a lesson."

Mr. Ali, who was part of a Fijian government tossed out of power a few years ago in a coup, says only tough action by the international community will control failing island governments.