Why is the US in a frenzy over the Pacific?
Pacific Island Nations encompass many countries in regions we know as Melanesia, literally, the Black Islands, from Papua New Guinea to New Caledonia, apparently so named because the inhabitants were darker skinned! Micronesia, which extends from the Philippines to Hawaii and Polynesia, geographically further south and extending to New Zealand.
According to the World Health Organisation, if we were to discount the geographically larger islands of Australia and Papua New Guinea in the south and the Philippines, Japan and Indonesia in the north and west, which all combine to make up the region called Oceania or border on it as Pacific Rim countries, there are 15 Pacific Island Nations. Some of which, like Wallis and Futana, most people have never heard of.
Only one of the fifteen, New Zealand, is defined as Developed, there are five Least Developed Countries, Kiribati, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu and Vanuatu and the rest are Developing Countries. In other words, there’s a lot of poverty in the region and there are also some serious health concerns. According to the WHO Non-communicable diseases, such as obesity and associated diabetes and heart risks are the biggest issues, Poverty also causes social issues such as high unemployment, tobacco and alcohol abuse which contribute to poor health.
To say that the West has ignored the Pacific Islands would be wrong. From the 16th Century, a period of discovery, until about 100 years ago, sailors, castaways and mutineers, used the islands as refuge and replenishment points. Around the 1860s, European missionaries and traders came to settle and exploit the natural resources. Colonial administrators bringing with them “indentured servants” from such places as India and China took what islands they needed and formed colonial governments. Profits were derived from the export of Sandalwood until stocks were depleted, pork, which was exported to colonies in Australia and New Zealand and, from the mid-1800s, the world needed copra, a coconut oil used to make soap and candles.
Westerners implemented administration and written laws, while Islanders had less formal but equally as important traditional laws. Land and property ownership wasn’t part of Islander’s way of life so disputes arose, skirmishes occurred and people died. All because colonisers needed land for their coconuts, sugarcane farms and, because of Civil War in America, cotton plantations. Large numbers of “indentured workers” came from India and China to work the plantations and at the same time, equally large numbers of Islanders were shipped to Australia as virtual slave labourers; the Kanakas.
So, the region experienced 200 years of land theft, resource exploitation, cultural appropriation though the influence of Christian missionaries, civil disorder, discriminatory legislation, labour abuses including slavery, forced migration of islanders out of, and foreigners into, the region. Some might say the region couldn’t have been treated much worse; but they would be wrong.
When peace finally arrived after the Second World War, it was time for the region to start recovering. These small countries started to regain independence and it looked like the horrendous history could be put behind them. But France, Britain and USA had other ideas. To top off the horrors and indignities enforced on the inhabitants for the previous two centuries, the three “western superpowers” created a horror story.
They each selected areas with local populations, thriving fishing industries and huge potential for future tourism. All three were devastated by the testing of new weapons. Some parts of the region became, and remain to this day, nuclear wastelands. From 1946 to 1958 the US exploded 67 nuclear bombs on islands such as Kiribati, Bikini Atoll and Enewatak Atoll, as well as several bombs simply dropped into the Pacific Ocean. The French focused on Moruroa Atoll until it became too contaminated for crew safety so they moved to Fangataufa Atoll. The United Kingdom, used a couple of Kiribati’s islands before focusing on Australia’s deserts and the Montebello Islands for their tests.
Some of the waste sites left behind pose severe risks. Nuclear waste storage dumps are deteriorating and likely to leak materials with, according to an Australian ABC report, a half-life of over 24,000 years.
The peoples of the nations in the Pacific region have many reasons to disassociate themselves from their colonial history and, for the last 40 years, since the last of the nuclear tests in the region have been attempting to do that. More recently both The Solomon Islands and Kiribati have taken steps to align themselves with China and take advantage of favourable trade deals brought by the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). These come with certain security commitments too and that worries the West.
In a frenzy created by Washington to offset this so-called Beijing influence and presumably by way of apology for 200 years of mistreatment and neglect, President Biden has hastily convened a Pacific Island Country Summit. The Solomon Islands, has not seen an American Diplomat since 1993 but suddenly is inundated with them and a promise by the USA to reopen an embassy it closed in 1993. Secretary Blinken also made the first visit by a Secretary of State to Fiji, one of the larger PICs this year, the first visit by a Secretary of State to the region since 1985. Promises have been made of a new Embassy in each of the Kingdom of Tonga and the Republic of Kiribati as well as an increase in the number of diplomatic staff to the region. The Solomon Islands, for example, will get two new State Department staff, plus five local employees.
The Biden Administration also crafted a new strategy in late 2021, re-naming the wider region as the Indo-Pacific. The opening paragraph of that strategy states: it will be a free and open region where “governments can make their own choices”. Something the Prime Minster of Solomon Islands, Manasseh Damukana Sogavare, stated was done when his democratically elected government made a democratic decision to align with China in a security arrangement.
There is, of course aid to the region. The Marshall Islands, for example, the nation where many of the nuclear tests took place has a US military base and which props up the economy and the US State Department has provided $800 million in aid, subsidies and financial support since 2004. This equates to 70% of the nation’s GDP and may seem a lot but it’s about the same as policing New York City for a month. Guam survives economically because it is a military outpost of US forces.
While the US may claim some degree of success, their hoped-for conclusive victory in the region is being played up in far more optimistic terms with a watered down 11 point declaration which covered important climate and environmental issues as well as gender equity and condemnation of Russia but made no specific promises.
The people of the Pacific Island Countries are looking to their leaders for better options. Generations of poverty, subjugation and abuse from the western world, increasing risks of both climate disaster and continuing nuclear waste and health problems as well as a changing world order have opened an opportunity to China. And, as three of the Pacific leaders involved in the summit have said, according to London’s Guardian Newspaper, the offer won’t “solve climate change” or “provide for our citizens’ education and health needs.
It seems to be a case of too little too late