Oceania between vulnerabilities and covetousness

Oceania has a marginal place within the colonial studies and the history of international relationships. This region, which is composed of thousands of islands, is a huge oceanic space that spreads from the Hawaii Islands in the North to Rapa Nui in the East and from Papua New Guinea in the West and to New Zealand in the South. Partly due to the exiguity and dispersion of large parts of these islands, Oceania remains quasi-invisible into historiography and represents a limited demographic area of nearly 38 million people from Australia (24 million inhabitants) and New Zealand (nearly 4.3 million). The Island states and territories which represent less than 10 million inhabitants whereby only 6.5 million are Papua New Guinean, are the largest and most inhabited isles of Oceania.

Pacific Islands Region.
(© 2011 / Atlas de l’Océanie. Continent d’îles, laboratoire du futur, Fabrice Argounès, Sarah Mohamed-Gaillard, Luc Vacher, cartographie de Cécile Marin, Paris, Autrement, p.72-73)

Although Oceania’s geographic contours – especially those in the western region– may be ill-defined, it is also merged with the common classification of the Pacific that tends to dilute the characteristics of the Island states and territories in a Asia-Pacific area.Hence the Pacific Island States and Territories seem to be a grey zone in a dynamic Asia-Pacific space. In spite of the large diversity of situations in the archipelagos, Pacific Island Countries (PIC) are nevertheless largely perceived by their demographic, social, political, economical, strategic, environmental and climatic vulnerabilities.

However, since the end of the 18th century, these islands continue to arouse envy fromWesternerswho are seeking to take stopovers for their Marines; to exploit natural wealth, to evangelise people, to cultivate the land, to get the labour force to work, etc. After the first English annexations, which were followed by the 1840’s French offensive in the Marquesas Island, Tahiti, and New Caledonia, conquests of the islands no longerrelated to a clear colonial project. The will to avoid a rival State’s access to an island could motivate the United Kingdom, France, United States, Australia… into Oceania. This race for conquest, which countries denied as strategic interests , was largely followed throughout the Cold War and through a pro-occidental Oceania.The islands also stratetic and military value which often consisted of also added to the strategic nuclear tests by United States, United Kingdom, andFrance, For this reason, no external action would weaken the balance. In the 1970s and 1980s, Soviet China and Libya threatened the security of the western powers interests in Oceania. The problems of destabilization inthe area soon became smaller than the internal tensions causing territories already engaged in the decolonization process or newly independent states to become stressed. At the end of the Cold War, the great powers manifested a strategic denial for Oceania that was expressed by the diminution of the developmental aids. Some fragilities of the island State resulted in violence which appeared in Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Solomon Islands and the Tonga. These tensions reflectedthe instability of this region and defined it by these weaknesses.

To counter the fragilities of these island, the powers that have historically been involved in Oceania developed programs of cooperation and development that allowed these Island States and Territories to rely on new funding partners, such as China, Taiwan, India, etc. Therefore, Oceania has became a zone of competition for increasing global policies of power. The United States, France, China and India - four nuclear powers - have been involved in Oceania for different reasons and at different degrees. Thus, the region is not let? at the margins of international strategic or economic issues. Understanding this context, the dollar policy is often takin in order to gain support of the Island States, According to Hillary Clinton at the 43rd meeting of the Pacific Forum(2012): «The Pacific is big enough for all of us. » However, regardless of their type, these financial transfers necessary for the PIC, represent general issues of the Asia-Pacific and Indo-Pacific areas within the international scene.

From awestern vision, which emphasizes the fragilities of the Islands, the Oceania voice underlines the values of the oceanic spaces and the exchanges that bind the islands together. This defines the meaning of the expression «sea of islands» by Epeli Hau’ofa, and echos the other expression «Pacific’s Great Ocean States», raised by the Pacific Forum in 2012.

The wealth of the Sea.
(© 2011 / Atlas de l’Océanie, Op.cit., p.58-59)

Without engaging in otherworldliness - the weaknesses of the Island States are very real - these archipelagos also have some assets. They dispose huge Economic Exclusive Zones whose fishing resources and potential ore and oil reserves could excite the envy of external powers. Oceania is plainly concerned with the research of new energetic resources and with the necessity to control its paths of transport. Australia supplies itself with gas from Papua New Guinea whose oil deposit reserves, such as gold, copper, cobalt and nickel reserves attract a lot of Chinese and American companies. Due to their geographic position, some of these islands may also be of a particular strategic interest for the stationing of troops. We could also stress the importance of Guam for United States or the Chinese project of setting upa military base in Tonga.

Likewise, the islands located in the vicinity of the equator are favorites to host space programs. India wants to give more independence to its space program by setting a control station at Fiji. Thus, even though the Pacific Island States could be referred to as small states, they still hold all the attributes of sovereign states and play a non-negligible role in the international forums.

For instance, until 2006, the Republic of China and Taiwan have carried «a chequebook competition» for gaining the diplomatic recognition of the PIC. Since 2014, India developed its ties with Oceania and in reaching this goal organized the first Forum for India Pacific Islands Cooperation in Fiji. In 2014, 2015 and 2016, the 14 PIC were represented as potential diplomatic supports for India whichwished to obtain a permanent seat at the UN Security Council. These PIC would also represent a market opportunity for the Indian industries. But the recent interest that India manifests for Oceania is representative of its ambition into an Indo-Pacific area, its aim to develop fast, and its rivalry with China.

Chinese cemetery of Tahiti.
(© Christine REGNAULT)

Despite its sense of vulnerability, Oceania is a sub-region of Asia-Pacific and Indo-Pacific areas that could be seen by global powers as some local point of influence. The multiplication of actors with an interest in Oceania makes the regional relationships more complex, giving the Pacific Island States the opportunity to develop a foreign policy related to their own interests. The political powers that are currently carried out in Oceania cannot be reduced to local issues. They highlight the position the area holds in the international scene and how the PIC appreciate international relationships.

Associate Professor of History

Sarah MOHAMED-GAILLARD is an Associate Professor at INALCO where she teaches History of Oceania. Her research interests deal with the policy of France in its overseas collectivities of South Pacific and with the regional and international relationships into Oceania. She is the author of "L’Archipel de la puissance ? La politique de la France dans le Pacifique Sud de 1946 à 1998", published by PIE-Peter Lang in 2011 and "L’histoire de l’Océanie de la fin du XVIIIe siècle à nos jours", published any Armand Colin in 2015.

Selected Bibliography:

Fabrice Argounès, Sarah Mohamed-Gaillard, Luc Vacher, Atlas de l’Océanie. Continent d’îles, laboratoire du futur, cartographie de Cécile Marin, Paris, Autrement, 2011, 80 p.

Greg Fry, Sandra Tarte (eds.), The New Pacific Diplomacy, ANU Press, Pacific Series, Canberra, 2015, 326 p.

Epeli Hau’ofa, «Our sea of Islands» dans We are the Ocean, selected works, University of Hawai’i Press, Honolulu, 2008, p.27-40.

© Photo de Catherine Bastien-Ventura, Gis Asie
December 2020
Myriam de Loenzien
Gosia Chwirot
directrice adjointe du GIS Asie et chargée de communication du GIS Asie