Some enchanted evening, we’ll acknowledge Sth Pacific
Most Australians have a vague awareness of the countries of the Pacific. Given their significance to our national interest these countries should get a better run in our public discourse.
But when it comes to taking the pulse on awareness about the territories of the Pacific the result is a very flat line. Ask a friend what they know of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) and I’ll guarantee you’ll be met with a blank stare and furrowed brow.
Yet the territories of the Pacific contain some important economic opportunities for Australia. They are also the world’s sovereignty laboratory.
Last week I led the first Australian political level visit to the CNMI. It was part of a quick sweep through Micronesia and the North Pacific. The choice to visit the CNMI is part of a more expansive view of the Pacific which includes the Pacific territories along with the nation states.
An island chain south of Japan, the CNMI is an unincorporated American territory acquired in the aftermath of WWII. Saipan, home to the largest population, was the scene of one of the bloodiest battles of WWII. It is thought more than 33,000 soldiers died, as well as thousands of civilians with many Japanese committing suicide at the Banzai Cliffs when hope of defending the island was gone. Another island, Tinian, was the airbase where the atomic bomb was loaded on the Enola Gay which made its fateful flight to Hiroshima.
Nowadays the CNMI is a tourist economy with great diving, weather and first class golf courses.
A more noteworthy economic prospect for Australia lies in another US territory, Guam, where one is struck by the similarities with Hawaii and North Queensland as communities whose economies are built on tourism and defence. With this similarity comes opportunity. Guam is preparing for the planned relocation of 20,000 people – marines and their families – from Okinawa. Australia has an expertise in tropical infrastructure and Guam needs that in spades.
Extending our horizons to include the Pacific territories is important in another way because the communities of the Pacific represent a sovereignty spectrum.
At one end are fully independent countries like Tonga and Samoa.
The Freely Associated States – Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands – offer a different model. Whilst independent states and members of the United Nations in their own right, the Freely Associated States have compact agreements with the US which involves services and money being provided by the US. They cede their defence function while their citizens participate in the US armed forces. They may also work in the US.
At the other end is Hawaii, a fully fledged part of the US with all the same rights and obligations as a citizen of California or New York
Along the way the likes of the Cook Islands, the CNMI, New Caledonia and Norfolk Island all occupy their particular place on the spectrum.
Within this spectrum entities are moving. New Caledonia and Bougainville are both going through formal autonomy processes which will lead to referenda on autonomy within the next few years. Yet this does not necessarily mean that independence will be the outcome. Debate and discussion is ensuing in both places with all the models on the table about what best suits the territories and their mother countries. Other places, both territories and countries, have their thinking caps on as well.
Whereas in previous times the debate has been a simple one of independence or not, now it is far more textured as communities explore the full range of relationships which could exist.
That the Pacific has become the test bed for sovereignty is hardly surprising. The isolation of these communities on small islands in a vast ocean lends itself to people with an identity and a desire for self determination. At the same time the maintenance of the apparatus of a 21st century independent nation state is difficult to bear for a small population.
There is much to play out with the Pacific’s sovereignty spectrum in the coming years. Along with the domestic considerations of each community, the provision of aid, the maintenance of regional security and regional international institutions all have dimensions which affect the sovereignty spectrum.
And we ought not assume that movement on the sovereignty spectrum will only be in one direction. As one of the developed countries with the largest interest and interests in the Pacific it is inevitable that this will have significant foreign policy implications for Australia.
In the meantime Australia will continue to build relationships with and learn more about the CNMI and the territories of the Pacific. They are new places for us to explore and they have much to offer.
Read all about it
Up to the minute Twitter chatter
The latest and greatest
Good morning Punchers. After four years of excellent fun and great conversation, this is the final post…
I have had some close calls, one that involved what looked to me like an AK47 pointed my way, followed…
In a world in which there are still people who subscribe to the vile notion that certain victims of sexual…