The Pacific Islands Forum has often been dismissed as an irrelevance, partly because of the insignificance of the region globally and partly because of the ineffectiveness of many of its endeavours. No more. The presence of United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at this year's gathering in the Cook Islands confirms that the forum is more important now than in its previous four decades of existence.

And that it could be even more significant as a vehicle for orchestrating and overseeing the development and security of the region.

The reason for this has, of course, far more to do with China's increasing role in the Pacific than the nations of Oceania themselves. This intrusion occurred while the US was heavily involved elsewhere. Mrs Clinton's participation in post-forum talks this weekend is an indication not only of American nervousness about China but its determination to re-engage with the region.

On the one hand, this bodes well for development in an area that, according to Oxfam, is the furthest of any from the internationally agreed poverty reduction targets under the Millennium Development Goals. But it also creates potential for the Pacific to be the stage for confrontation between the US and China.


In that context, Prime Minister John Key's calls for Beijing to work more closely with countries such as New Zealand over its aid programme in the Pacific make eminent sense.

If there has been a reason for discomfort about China's presence, it is that its aid has been delivered without consultation with New Zealand and Australia, which have historically and economically played the leading role in Oceania. Often, that aid has not met the needs of small island nations, and has been a potential catalyst for corruption. Obvious examples are the sports stadiums that were built in Samoa and Papua New Guinea. The emphasis should be on addressing poor health, education shortcomings and a lack of opportunities for youth, and the promotion of economic independence.

Here New Zealand's expertise could be useful to China. A closer aid relationship would ensure that programmes were delivered constructively. An ill-directed influx of money can do far more harm to fragile economies than good. Better aid outcomes would enhance China's standing. More importantly, a joint approach would help to defuse the potential for confrontation. This country's burgeoning relationship with Beijing also demands that it continues its dialogue with China, as well as with other influential players.

The Pacific Islands Forum can be pivotal in engendering a climate of co-operation. The US and China have already held several rounds of talks under the Consultation on the Asia-Pacific umbrella. But the presence of Mrs Clinton in the Cooks underlines the forum's importance as a regional political structure. Meetings outside the often bland official agenda among the so-called dialogue partners and with forum members can be the main stage for advancing development initiatives.

As the Foreign Minister, Murray McCully, has noted, China is doing no more in the Pacific than it is doing elsewhere. Its presence provides a level of engagement and influence designed to secure access to resources on a scale that will meet its future needs. It has been aided in this by America's absence and the West's shunning of the military regime in Fiji. It is now one of the region's three top aid donors.

That should be a major plus for the nations of the Pacific, and particularly those with ailing economies. So far, most have successfully juggled their arrangements with China and the US. They have avoided being cast in one camp or the other. The Pacific Islands Forum can be a key agent in ensuring this continues and that co-operation continues to be the order of the day.