Dependency and Diplomacy in Oceania

During a brief encounter at a restaurant in Canberra in 2018, then Environment Minister for Australia Melissa Price was alleged to have said to the former President of Kiribati Anote Tong, ”I know why you’re here. It is for the cash…For the Pacific, it is always about the cash. I have my chequebook here. How much do you want?” The incident caused quite a stir and was reported in the mainstream Australian media. An Australian Senator, with whom Tong was dining with at the time, conveyed his disapproval of the comments to the Prime Minister Scott Morrison, describing them as discourteous and offensive behaviour. A year later at the 2019 Pacific Islands Forum meeting in Tuvalu, Leaders of the Pacific were engaged in prolonged and heated negotiations over what came to be known as the Kainaki Lua Declaration. During the negotiations, a clearly irritated Prime Minister of Australia allegedly exclaimed “I give you guys money and I have the receipts to prove it!”

Both of these examples tell us much about power, ideology and dependency in Oceania. In the first instance, we should ask what precisely was so offensive about Price’s comments? Indeed, since independence Pacific Island governments have become experts in leveraging their vulnerability and geostrategic position for access to financing from a range of partners. For example, Epeli Hau’ofa writes island governments use a strategy of “affirmative action” in order to get as much advantage as they can from Australia and New Zealand. Indeed, when it comes to climate change – the issue for which Anote Tong is most renowned for – the region has leveraged its vulnerability to access almost USD2billion in the last decade. So perhaps one could forgive Price for her statement.

So again, what is the problem here? Is it simply that that Price’s remarks were offensive because she dismisses the importance of climate change to Pacific nations? That is, for the Pacific climate change is a matter of survival and not money? I would argue no. Rather, what was most offensive here for Tong and the Pacific was that the Minister broached the topic of money too directly. That is, it really is about the money (i.e., about the Pacific’s economic dependency on Australia), but the way to talk about it is precisely by acknowledging that it’s really a matter of survival thereby protecting the semblance of Pacific agency and upholding the diplomatic rules of the game.

In the case of Scott Morrison, more so than Melissa Price, we witness the raw display of power at play in the Pacific. That is, the bold actions of some Pacific Island Leaders temporarily suspended the usual rules of the game, and once this symbolic support for dialogue was gone Morrison was left with nothing but to display the power underpinning the diplomatic relationship.  Nonetheless, this event where the typical rules of diplomacy were temporarily suspended represented a moment of rupture through which existing power relations could begin to be transformed.

However, events such as this by themselves are not enough to trigger an enduring transformation. Rather, what is most important is “the day after the revolution”, when we ask what will be different in our lives, what will have changed? For example, there are many examples we can think of from recent decades where mass protests have captured the news headlines only to disappear into obscurity soon after. In such examples, rather than drawing out the consequences of the event we often remain obsessed with the spectacle of the event itself. Badiou (2009) suggests four different ways that people typically respond to a moment of rupture:(1) faithful; (2) reactive; (3) obscure; and (4) resurrection. A reactive response resists the potential for change in favour of the old order, while the obscure response seeks to erase the traces of the event through appealing to a Transcendent Power (e.g., Pacific Solidarity or the Pacific Way). A resurrection response seeks to reactivate the event in new and different contexts and the faithful response remains faithful to the potential created by the event.

Back to Tuvalu – how has the Pacific region responded to the rupture in normal diplomatic relations that took place during the Leaders’ retreat? The government of Australia responded reactively, taking steps to resist the potential for change in favour of the status quo. It is doing this by lessoning its engagement with and through the Forum Secretariat and increasing its bilateral engagements with Pacific Island governments. Consequently, while most of the island governments have not actively resisted the potential for change that the Tuvalu meeting provided, they have rather passively resisted it in favour of the bilateral economic relationship with Australia. 

An obscure reaction was witnessed in the response of the Cook Islands who, appealing to a higher value of ‘Forum solidarity’ as paramount, expressed contempt for the way the Forum Secretariat put this solidarity at risk by tabling the declaration for Leaders consideration. Finally, it was perhaps Vanuatu who was the only country willing to extend the consequences of the impossible event in Tuvalu through resurrection. That is, indications were that the Vanuatu government was planning to use the 2020 Forum Leaders meeting in Vanuatu to build on the impossible event from Tuvalu.

So what is to be done? For those of us who believe in the transformative potential of Oceania, we must resurrect the traces of the event from Tuvalu – which in this context means continuing to suspend the ideological support masking the region’s economic dependencies, and the vulnerabilities and class relations these dependencies perpetuate. Perhaps most importantly, to do so means more than hysterically pointing the finger at Australian power, but rather we must challenge the ideology of “Pacific diplomacy” that fetishes spaces of Pacific agency thereby masking the failure of Oceania autonomy and supporting existing relations of power and privilege.