By Ben Schaare
Though the Pacific Islands are envisaged as idyllic paradises insulated from high politics, many are facing internal troubles that could see the region become a new “arc of instability” for Australia, New Zealand, and the United States to contend with.
Independence movements across the region are fueling destabilization. New Caledonia and Bougainville have independence votes forthcoming, which could see them separated from France and Papua New Guinea, respectively. Chuuk State in the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) is pursuing the same, and French Polynesia is hotly debating following New Caledonia’s lead. Meanwhile Norfolk Islanders are irate at having recently lost their local government autonomy vis-à-vis Australia, and the government of the Cook Islands is seeking UN membership over the objections of New Zealand.
Of all the potentially independent Pacific states, Bougainville, already an autonomous region, has the greatest likelihood of success, and the greatest possibility of violence. After the bloody civil war that exploded in 1989, the Bougainville peace agreement was negotiated in 1998. This mandated the adoption of a constitution, which occurred in 2004, and the scheduling of an independence referendum between 10 and 15 years after the election of an autonomous government, which occurred on June 15, 2005. An independence vote must therefore be held before 2019.
John Momis was reelected president of the province on June 8 and will guide Bougainville through the referendum. Momis may be laying the economic groundwork for independence by working to reopen Panguna, once the largest copper mines in the world. Panguna would be the island’s major source of income and critical to the fiscal viability of an independent Bougainville. But it was also the catalyst for the civil war, and remains a sensitive subject. Further, the referendum is not binding on the government of Papua New Guinea, and considering that the former rebel groups have kept their weapons, violence could easily break out if Bougainville votes for independence and national authorities in Port Moresby ignore the will of the people.
New Caledonia, a French overseas territory, must also schedule an independence referendum by 2018. Tensions between Europeans and indigenous Kanaks erupted violently in the 1980s, before the 1988 Matingon Accord scheduled an independence vote for 1998. The Noumea Accord of the same year postponed the vote and granted greater autonomy from Paris. Anti-independence parties retained their parliamentary majority in 2014 elections, and will thus lead the island toward the vote. France may play a significant role, as Paris must set a date for the vote if the opposing local factions cannot. This is likely, given the recent need for French intervention to resolve a dispute over the referendum’s electoral roll. While violence is unlikely, New Caledonia would also be economically dependent on controversial mining.
The Cook Islands, which is in free association with New Zealand, wants a UN seat without full independence or giving up its people’s Kiwi citizenship. Prime Minister Henry Puna raised the issue of UN membership with New Zealand prime minister John Key at a meeting on June 9. Key ruled it out, saying the existing constitutional arrangement benefits both countries, and UN membership would require a change, possibly a loss of citizenship. Puna strenuously denied a report in New Zealand media suggesting his government was pushing for independence, as most Cook Islanders want to keep their New Zealand citizenship. The leaders are expected to discuss the issue again in September on the sidelines of the Pacific Islands Forum in Papua New Guinea.
Many residents of Chuuk, the largest state in the FSM, feel they do not receive a commensurate share of funding from the government. An independence referendum hastily planned for March was postponed indefinitely in February. Nonetheless, the move surprised experts. The issue had not been publicly discussed beforehand, and to date there is no credible plan for an economically viable Chuuk. A declaration of independence would also be on shaky legal ground, and would likely leave Chuuk without its share of the benefits currently enjoyed under the FSM’s compact of free association with the United States.
Norfolk Island also wants to cut the apron strings. Australia incensed residents by stripping Norfolk autonomy on May 12. Canberra said the move was necessary to ensure infrastructure, education, and health on the island met Australian standards. Norfolk Island has responded by forming a campaign seeking UN support for self-determination.
While Bougainville poses the most serious threat of violence in the Pacific, all these movements, particularly taken together, threaten regional stability. Australia and New Zealand have already conducted military stabilization operations in Bougainville once, and do not want to repeat them. The independence movements are also politically destabilizing. New Caledonia’s impending referendum is likely to cause a political logjam, and independence rumors have fed opposition moves to topple Puna’s Cook Islands government. Domestic political instability will invariably draw Canberra, Wellington, and Washington’s focus away from other pressing regional challenges like education, natural disasters, and climate change.
The economic feasibility of each independent state would also be uncertain. Though legitimate grievances justifying self-determination may exist, when independent states are unable to provide economic opportunities and development for their citizens, the humanitarian response will invariably fall in large part to Australia, New Zealand, and the United States.
An unstable Pacific also opens the door further for outside powers, particularly China and Taiwan, to gain influence. Though sensitive to issues of sovereignty and territorial integrity, both may court new friends, for instance through soft loans like those previously offered to other Pacific Islands. The quid pro quo would then be support in international organizations, such as the United Nations. This could spur a replay of China and Taiwan’s previous Pacific competition, raising tensions.
To prevent an arc of instability forming in the Pacific, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States should promote inclusive governance that addresses the grievances of restive populations. By directing aid toward governance issues, the development partners would be investing in the future stability and prosperity of the region, which is of great long-term value.
Mr. Benjamin Schaare is an independent analyst covering the politics of the Pacific.