Foreign policy scholars say Pacific Island countries need to take the steering wheel to ensure they get the most out of heightened interest both from China and the United States.
And they say traditional partners and the big powers need to re-gear with the many challenges ahead.
Sally Round reports:
Amid the small talk at this year's University of Otago Foreign Policy School was where were the Chinese? The theme was Pacific Geopolitics in the 21st Century and the scholars, diplomats, and students were hungry for information on China's plans for the region. Anne-Marie Brady of Canterbury University is a China scholar and mandarin-speaker who meets regularly with Chinese foreign policy experts and officials.
"ANNE-MARIE BRADY: Where is the Chinese embassy here today? Where are the Chinese scholars? Whereas we have scholars from the US, we have policymakers from the US. I've been working on China for a very long time in my career, and I'm quite confident in saying Chinese officials, and Chinese leaders, are not comfortable, are not at ease, with the kind of free debate that we experience."
Anne-Marie Brady told delegates there is no overarching China Inc strategy - it has multiple actors and interests - but the government thinks long-term.
Terence Wesley-Smith of the University of Hawaii says China's activities in the region are part of its outreach to the developing world. But the driving force in the Pacific is mostly commercial, with Chinese companies on the hunt for resources.
TERENCE WESLEY-SMITH: There is a tendency to kind of homogenise China. And I think nothing could be further from the truth. Even though these are state-owned companies, they're out there doing their own thing. There's an increasing gap between perhaps what the Beijing decision-makers would like to be happening overseas, and what those companies are actually doing.
Anne-Marie Brady reiterated her concerns of a perfect storm brewing.
ANNE-MARIE BRADY: These great powers at the moment are avoiding competition where possible, but their interests will inevitably clash. And one example would be China's emphasis on its maritime strategy and interest in ruling the waves, at least the parts of the waves that interest China.
Some of the experts felt Pacific Island countries have a stark choice to make between the United States and China when it comes to their own development. But Ernest Bower of the Washington-based think-tank, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, says the United States does not want them to be torn between the two.
ERNEST BOWER: We recognise the fact that the Chinese are going to be a major presence in the Pacific for a long time. And we want to work with them. So we're, I think, putting the hand out to do that.
Warnings continued to be sounded about China's soft loans to the region and the potential for domestic social and political conflict if land was used as a way of paying off debts. A Pacific activist, Ali'itasi Stewart, says it's a real concern in her country.
ALI'ITASI STEWART: One of the main things that really scares me is that these corporations, these banks, can actually sue the Pacific for the money that is owed. I'm really fearful that because Samoa has a lot to do with the Chinese dollars, that I'm actually going to become a renter in my own land - exactly like the Hawaiians.
But Dr Alumita Durutalo of Otago University says the people of the region are pragmatic when it comes to working with both China and the US and traditional development partners like New Zealand and Australia.
ALUMITA DURUTALO: As an indigenous person, I don't really have much choice but to be good to both. I know at the end of the cold war we have moved from bipolar to multipolar type of politics. And there are opportunities to take advantage of.
A former prime minister of Fiji, but better known as the leader of its first coup, Sitiveni Rabuka, says China is just filling the gap left by others. Fiji's Look North Policy has gathered pace since sanctions applied to Fiji in the wake of the 2006 coup by the likes of Australia, New Zealand and the European Union.
SITIVENI RABUKA: They're just filling a need, they're just filling a vacuum. And if that is properly filled, then there is no need to look elsewhere after normalisation. I am worried about indebtedness. That's why I'm talking about the proper assessment of the so-called aid or soft loan, (being) subject to public account and also subject to the people of Fiji. Will they continue to go into debt for generations to come? And China is also running the risk of the country not being able to pay.
A delegate from the Cook Islands said Pacific Island people have more pressing concerns than geopolitics - climate change, depleting fisheries, transportation and depopulation to name a few. Former New Zealand diplomat Michael Powles said New Zealand risks being dazzled by geopolitical concerns.
MICHAEL POWLES: These geopolitical preoccupations will suck oxygen away from our ongoing priorities that relate to our neighbours in the region and to our position in our own neighbourhood. I believe we must not allow that to happen.
And he says New Zealand could be missing the bigger picture.
MICHAEL POWLES: We have been fixated on Fiji and its problems and slow to recognise the massive changes taking place in the West (Pacific). The biggest questions in the region today are when PNG will be fully recognised as the Pacific's leader, and the extent to which its leadership will reduce the roles of New Zealand and conceivably even Australia?
So what does the United States' pivot to the Asia Pacific mean for regional dynamics? Dr Gerard Finin watches the region from the East-West Centre in Honolulu. He says the Pacific Islands display a range of attitudes to the US.
GERARD FINN: For some, the US is a dependable ally in times of crisis or perhaps a long lost friend. For others, who recall the Cold War era and our subsequent reduced engagement, the sentiment may, under all of the politeness, be that of a fair-weather friend.
Dr Finin says the United States' underfunded embassies, one-off public diplomacy exercises and ad hoc meetings in the region aren't good enough.
He also says the current alphabet soup of regional bodies may not be adequate for these dynamic times.
GERARD FINN: I do think there's more room for unification of island governments in a regional architecture that says, we're all living in the same Pacific Ocean and we face many of the same challenges, the same constraints - transportation, for example. And so to take a broader regional perspective would have benefits in some configuration.
Dr Finin says he doesn't have the blueprint for the new type of regional architecture that's needed. The most important thing is it's Pacific-led.