Can Pacific Island Nations Sustain Independence? | Dan Mikhaylov

With 98.3% of its population voting for independence from Papua New Guinea in the 2019 referendum, the autonomous region of Bougainville is set to become the next internationally recognised independent state since South Sudan. This event promises to become both a harbinger and a source of inspiration for manifestations of popular self-determination elsewhere in the Pacific region. Having squandered two opportunities to secure a mandate for secession from France, New Caledonian nationalists will be diligently examining the Bougainvillean campaign in the build-up to the last remaining independence referendum, stipulated in the Noumea Accord and scheduled for 2022. The same applies to half a dozen other separatist movements: West Papuans in Indonesia, New Irelanders in Papua New Guinea, Malaitans in the Solomon Islands, and the Chuukese in Micronesia all dream of independence. Their considerable grassroots support suggests a drastic transformation of the regional political climate might certainly be underway.

However, such a parade of sovereignties inevitably raises concerns over the sustainability of independence in Oceania. Although this arrangement might seem a worthwhile measure to preserve the local culture, endemic poverty and frequent natural disasters that threaten to subvert development and render economic progress obsolete call its benefits into question. Moreover, political independence does not guarantee strategic autonomy. Conversely, Pacific island nations continue to depend on foreign aid and have to attune their foreign policy priorities and decisions to those of their Australian, Chinese, or American investors. Even if they possess significant amounts of natural resources, which, if harnessed, could strengthen political independence in the long run, independence by and large remains untenable for the countries in question.

Both colonisation and decolonisation in Oceania began considerably late. Between the late nineteenth century and the Second World War, Britain and France as well as the United States and Japan have established control over the local populations, which did not cease until the late 1960s. Within the next three decades, more than seven British colonies became independent largely thanks to the British government’s initiative, while France and the US withdrew from Vanuatu and Micronesia and the Marshall Islands, respectively. Since these developments are comparatively recent – with Palau and Nieu putting themselves on the map in 1994 – it would be folly to assume that decolonisation has been accomplished and that colonial borders would not be redrawn once again. Both Bougainville and New Caledonia have been for independence from the same decade as those countries whose demands were subsequently fulfilled. Calls to divorce the former from Papua New Guinea in fact predate Papuan independence. Local deputies – who swore allegiance to Australia – discussed conducting a referendum on Bougainville’s status in 1968, and Bougainville had even declared independence unilaterally at the same time as Papua New Guinea, but received no international recognition and put its plans for statehood on hold. New Caledonians have been advocating for French retreat since formation of the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS) in 1984, and brokered an agreement with Paris after the activists had taken a whole brigade of French gendarmes hostage in 1988, which provided for three state-sponsored independence votes. Evidently, decolonisation is too recent a phenomenon in the Pacific area for its momentum to subside and for its exponents to contend themselves with the current conjuncture.

Across the different self-determination movements, two major arguments for independence tend to be adduced. Firstly, Pacific islanders harbour a strong desire to overturn the colonial legacy. Thus, Bougainvilleans have traditionally identified themselves with Solomon Islanders and justified the referendum on the grounds that it would alleviate the ethnocultural tensions between Papuans and Bougainvilleans that had resulted in a decade-long civil war and the loss of almost 15,000 lives. As for the Kanaks of New Caledonia, colonial rule made them a minority within their own land, with descendants of French and Polynesian settlers comprising a similar proportion of the local population according to the 2014 census, and not only excluded them from nickel mining revenue but also forced them into segregated reservations for most the nineteenth century. Today’s generations of New Caledonia’s indigenous community still endure such economic hardship as discrimination in rent and landownership, and many blame the territory’s tragic past for this predicament.

Secondly, separatists often purport that political independence would make the regions in question financially better-off. Such rhetoric predominated before and during the Bougainville referendum, when the pro-secession majority pointed to the Panguna mine that contains an estimated 1 billion tons of copper and 12 million ounces of gold and that enabled the province to benefit from the second highest per capita income and the highest life expectancy in Papua New Guinea before the civil war in 1988-98 and the resultant economic blockade of Bougainville. Upon securing independence, the argument goes, Bougainville would gain access to 60% of the mining revenue and channel this money into domestic infrastructural and economic development. In New Caledonia, there are similar deposits of nickel, which currently help sustain its high per capita GDP of circa £28,000, but which could be more equably distributed among local residents to minimise income inequality between provinces and decrease the percentage of households below the poverty line below the current 17%.

But such optimistic claims do not necessarily conform to reality. Although Bougainvilleans and New Caledonians duly count on the local natural resources and minerals to make independence a positive experience, a number of socioeconomic factors, if unaddressed, risk making this wishful thinking. Local governments would have to invest in education. At the moment, as many as half the Bougainvillean population is illiterate and with limited access to education and other benefits that we associate with modern living. Bougainvillean nationalists could hitherto afford to scapegoat Port Moresby for this, while continuing to depend on central government handouts to keep the provincial economy afloat, but independence would inevitably shift the burden onto them and force them into difficult decisions that might involve a partial surrender of sovereignty to China or the US. After all, Bougainville could not even fund its own independence referendum and relied on American foreign aid to cover its costs, while economic necessity is so great that even the more economically and politically established states, such as the Solomon Islands, are considering leasing entire islands to foreign investors. Furthermore, Oceania is among the most disease- and obesity-ridden regions on Earth. According to the World Bank, 40% of the countries with the highest average annual disaster losses in relation to its GDP are located in the Pacific. Meanwhile, the United Nations reports that national obesity rates in the region range from 90% in Nauru to 50% in five other Pacific island nations, as money shortages and small island size make large-scale agriculture expensive and internationally uncompetitive. Add to this the increasing threat of natural disasters due to climate change, which, in the words of local officials, undo “decades of progress” in food security and infrastructure and the costs of sovereignty begin to outweigh its benefits.

In conclusion, independence is an extremely popular concept in the Pacific – so much that New Caledonian and Bougainvillean separatists have sustained their conviction in, and commitment to, it through decades of violent conflict with authorities. While both groups might soon reap the fruits of their decade-long campaigns and negotiations as well as inspire many others to follow suit and demand secessions, independence promises to be a rocky road. Widespread illiteracy and poverty, natural disasters and non-communicable diseases, American and Chinese ambitions in Oceania – all of these factors could make genuine autonomy difficult to sustain in the long run. Certainly, not all Pacific island nations are the same. In Fiji and Tonga, freshwater shortages have been successfully overcome, with 4.3% and 0.4% of their respective inhabitants still devoid of stable access to clean water on a daily basis. The island nation of Tuvalu has benefitted from selling the popular .tv website domain, and there is no reason why Bougainville and New Caledonia cannot derive the same profits from their natural resources. But the latter need significant initial investment, and local governments must show great caution when dealing with prospective donors, whether they are from the Anglophone world or from China. Otherwise, true political independence – which is already difficult to preserve owing to the Pacific island nations’ economic dependence – might prove unsustainable.

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