What will be the future of Oceania? Part I

Visions of deeper dependency and vulnerability

Writing on foreign aid in the Pacific back in 1987, Feleti Sevele observed,

while almost all Pacific Island countries preach self-reliance and even self-sufficiency in reality most practice dependence on aid. In the early years of formal development planning, most Pacific Government Development Plans began by stressing the need to become more self-reliant and self-sufficient and outlined strategies for achieving those objectives. However, with each succeeding plan, the objectives of greater self-reliance and self-sufficiency seemed to be forever receding, whilst the need for outside assistance seems to be forever increasing – so much so that many development plans now are, in essence, no more than documents drawn up primarily for the requirements of seeking aid

Little seems to have changed since then, at both national and regional levels. In the Pacific Plan Review, for example, Sir Mekere and his team examined how the Plan shifted from a strategy for deeper regionalism into a development plan with so many priorities that it effectively had no priorities. Sir Mekere concluded in his letter to the Secretary General of the Forum that Pacific regionalism needed to be “genuinely game-changing in terms of mitigating the region’s vulnerabilities and dependencies, which will otherwise dog its social, economic and environmental well-being”. Since 2017, Forum members at least appear to have been taking Sir Mekere’s words seriously. At the 2017 Forum meeting, Leaders endorsed the “Blue Pacific narrative” and “recognised the opportunity of The Blue Pacific identity to reinforce the potential of our shared stewardship of the Pacific Ocean”. The following year at their meeting in Nauru, the issue of self-reliance took centre stage through the theme “Our Islands, Our People, Our Will“, and in 2019 Leaders took steps to making these commitments concrete through their agreement to develop a 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent.

However, since the meeting in Tuvalu in 2019, Sevele’s words have come back to haunt us. A committee of Forum officials have captured the process to develop the 2050 strategy and hollowed out any transformative potential that it may have harboured. Indeed, this capture by officials and the observable trajectory the strategy is taking appear as nothing less than a return to the days of the Pacific Plan. Furthermore, this ‘low ambition coalition’ of officials has been aided and abetted by a PIFS Secretary General who continues to claim she has no sway or influence over government officials and regional organisations. Once again, strategic and visionary leadership has given way to upholding the status quo.

Therefore while the Forum political collective continues to avoid what are undoubtedly sensitive and difficult conversations about the future viability of the Pacific region, analysts outside the region with their own set of strategic interests are filling the void. For example, in 2017 Greg Colton wrote that it was time for Australia “to forge free compact agreements in the Pacific” and in 2019 Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd suggested a sovereignty for exclusive economic zone swap between Australia and the Pacific through entering into a formal constitutional condominium agreement. Under such an agreement, Pacific peoples would get Australian citizenship while Australia “would become responsible for their territorial seas, their vast Exclusive Economic Zones, including the preservation of their precious fisheries reserves”. Australian journalist Bruce Hill suggested that such a deal makes sense because “You can’t eat sovereignty, you can’t drink independence, and you can’t build a house on a flag floating in the middle of the ocean”. Then in 2020 ANU academic John Blaxland reinforced both Colton and Rudd’s proposals calling a “grand compact” between Australia and the Pacific “the Fix”. Former Tuvalu Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga labelled such proposals as “imperial thinking“, whereas former President of Kiribati Anote Tong suggested a grand compact with Australia would be a difficult one for small island countries like his to turn down. Regardless of what one may think of such proposals, without a transformative collective political project for an autonomous and resilient Oceania, they appear as plausible scenarios for the region.

Science too is speaking loud and clear about the future of Oceania. In particular, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report on oceans and cryosphere paints a particularly bleak picture. For example, the report finds strong evidence for the impacts of ocean warming on the distribution and abundance of fish and shellfish, and consequently strong evidence of negative consequences for Indigenous peoples and local communities that are dependent on fisheries. Furthermore the impacts of climate change on marine ecosystems and their services is anticipated to cause “potentially rapid and irreversible loss of culture and local knowledge and Indigenous knowledge, and negative impacts on traditional diets and food security, aesthetic aspects, and marine recreational activities”. Again, without a transformative collective political-economic project for Oceania, the visions of Colton, Rudd and Blaxland appear more viable.

Yet another vision for Oceania worth mentioning here comes from Gerard Barron, the CEO of Deep Green Metals. In a recent interview, Barron asked,

What if people working in the Pacific Ocean could bring their families along and live off the ocean on floating islands … and invite deep-sea researchers, aquaculture farmers, and engineers interested in harnessing offshore wind, solar, wave, and thermal energy? What if these floating platforms could be prototypes of human-made habitats for communities displaced by rising sea levels? Onshore, what if we reimagined metal processing plants, so they can be integrated into exciting new energy ecosystems, rather than ugly industrial monsters we place out of sight?

One wonders where Pacific Island people fit in this vision. Will they provide cheap labour and services for the professionals and families that will come to exploit the region of its resources? Will they exist at all in the region or will their lands and ocean be handed over in compact agreements? How will the location of metal processing plants be decided and by whom? Will the availability of floating platforms include the needs of islanders or at the behest of the market? And let’s be clear here: this is not simply a new phase of imperialism; the pursuit of deep sea mining is being undertaken by governments of Nauru, Kiribati, Tonga and the Cook Islands.

So what options does the region have? Are there any scenarios that will enable a viable future for Oceania without losing its autonomy and exploiting its human and natural resources? We turn to these questions in part II of this post.