From Oceania Hypothesis to Oceania Collective – Part I: NFIP

With the existing global and regional political-economic order continuing to lead us to the brink of planetary catastrophe, we are all too aware that things cannot carry on as they are, that something, everything, must change. While we are certain that things must change, what is uncertain, and indeed overwhelming, is precisely what is to be done to make this change. The very fact that we are uncertain about what is to be done should be seen as an indication that something authentically new is at stake. That is, what is required of us cannot be drawn from what we already know, from the existing coordinates of our everyday knowledge and experiences. Indeed, as has been argued throughout Oceania Hypothesis, the basis for an emancipatory form of political organisation in the region today is not our shared cultural identity or geography, but rather it is the antagonistic position of Oceania within the global capitalist order – an antagonism we must remember also runs through Oceania itself, and one that makes the Pacific struggle a universal one.

With these points in mind, the next few posts will begin to explore the possibilities for creating new forms of political organisation in Oceania. Here in part 1 we consider what we can learn from past political movements in Oceania to help us in our current moment, specifically the Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific movement (NFIP) from the late 1970’s and early 1980’s.

A reinvigorated NFIP?

Given such uncertainty about what is to be done, it is perhaps natural to want to turn to our past experiences of political organisation and resistance in the Pacific. This is what happened during a recent online event on cancelling the Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC, the world’s largest international maritime warfare exercise hosted by the United States Navy’s Indo-Pacific Command). At about the 55 minute mark of the discussion, Marco de Jong invites us to consider how we might be able to build on the successes of the NFIP movement. There are no doubts about the successes of the NFIP, including its influence over what was to become the Rarotonga Treaty and wins with regard to stopping nuclear waste dumping in the South Pacific. Indeed, newly de-classified documents, de Jong tells us, reveal just how powerful the movement was. For example, the admiral of the US Pacific fleet at the time claimed that the NFIP was the biggest threat to US security interests. Meanwhile, the Australian government sought to actively counter more radical proposals arising from the movement for a nuclear free zone by drafting alternative proposals that take into account the ‘defence requirements of the region and of its allies’.

Questions of a revival of NFIP are not new and debates have been ongoing for decades. While I am in no way qualified to answer questions on revitalising the NFIP, here I offer some reflections on some of strengths of the NFIP that may be helpful to us in our current context, as well as how NFIP may differ from our current moment. Some of the key factors contributing to the movement’s successes whose replication in some way is worth consideration include:

  • Organisationally, the NFIP operated at a scale necessary to effect its demands – independence in just one Pacific country would not be enough. Similarly, for de Jong, there is an urgent need today to re-build the regionalism of the NFIP, which provided a legitimate challenge to US imperial interests. Whereas today, the idea of regionalism in the Pacific comes with the heavy baggage of institutionalised bureaucracy, the regionalism of NFIP was much less hindered by such structures and processes. As argued in the previous post, Kiribati’s withdrawal opens the space within existing regionalism structures to think and re-build a new regionalism.
  • The diverse membership of the NFIP, which consisted of a broad based grassroots coalition of indigenous groups, environmental activists and trade unions. The current state of affairs with activism not just in the Pacific but globally is one of fragmentation. In the Pacific, there are diverse groups of activists, from women’s rights, disability rights, LGBTQI, decolonisation, climate change, anti-globalisation, anti-militarisation, trade unions and the list goes on. What lessons can we draw from the NFIP for building a broad based movement in a context of such fragmentation?
  • The NFIP had a clearly articulated political line – political independence and a nuclear free region. The latter was driven by the need to protect the ocean from ongoing nuclear testing in the Pacific and threats of nuclear waste, while political independence was deemed necessary for achieving a nuclear free region. It was this political line that was not negotiable for the movement and provided, perhaps, a point of unification for the diverse groups of activists in the region. One question arising from this is whether the same political line is relevant and capable of mobilising a broad based movement in today’s context, or does a new political line need to be drawn?

A new movement for Oceania?

Noting such successes, and well aware of ongoing debates over the revitalisation of NFIP, Julian Aguon (see about 1h21min into the video) questions whether we want to reconstitute NFIP or do we want to give birth to a new idea, a new cross border, regional group with indigenous anti-imperialism is its nucleus? Such questions invite us to consider some of the key differences that exist between the context of the NFIP and our current moment. For example, as alluded to in the previous paragraph, are the issues that the NFIP fought for relevant in today’s context? While the nuclear threat remains, including the decision of the Japanese government to dump nuclear waste in the Pacific, the major threat to the wellbeing and future of the Pacific today is climate change. In the NFIP context the state actors responsible for nuclear testing and colonialism were clear. With climate change, although we can easily identify certain state actors that produce more carbon emissions than others, the source of the climate catastrophe is not simply a problem of particular actors. It is rather a problem of imperialism which is ‘setting in place a future that increases the debt and dependence of colonized and formerly colonized peoples, heightening global misery and exploitation…The goals of the imperialists are money and power, capital and control. The climate movement can no longer proceed as if our goal is persuading such governments to act’.

Indeed, de Jong hints at the futility of an approach that simply aims at persuading governments to change. During the RIMPAC discussion he lamented, ‘the new Australian government can go to the Forum and make bold statements about climate change, and Jacinda Adern can talk about how NZ opposes militarism, but we have our people at RIMPAC’. Therefore, de Jong suggests that if one simply supplements the word ‘nuclear’ with ‘climate change’ in certain declassified documents then it is not hard to see how Australia and New Zealand could co-opt the language of climate justice to securitise the region and preempt the emergence of any new forms of regionalism today. Further, what de Jong’s observations highlight about Australia, New Zealand and by extension the Pacific Islands Forum is the difference between the content of what one says and the position from which they speak. The Pacific Islands Forum, despite promising rhetorical content, is unable to act in the transformative way required to secure the future of the region.

A second potential difference between the NFIP context and our current moment is the absolute centrality of political independence to the NFIP, which was inseparable from achieving a nuclear free Pacific. While a number of Pacific nations remain colonies today, it is unclear what role independence plays in addressing climate change and contemporary modes of imperialism. Indeed, as has been discussed repeatedly on Oceania Hypothesis, the independent states of the Pacific are themselves complicit in reproducing aspects of capitalist imperialism, including transnational class divisions within our own region. Further, what is required to meet the shared global challenges of climate change and imperialism today is not assertions of national sovereignty but rather cross border global solidarity. Therefore, can we understand struggles for self-determination today in the same way as during the time of NFIP? What is meant by self-determination in a context where the assertion of our political independence has us entangled in the web of global capitalism?

Both of these issue lead us to consider whether there are new ways of linking anti-imperialism with ecological justice that can generate a broad-based movement? One possibility comes from Dean and Heron who argue that what is needed today is a ‘COP26 for anti-imperialists. The same form — planetary transitions, planetary aspirations — with a different, revolutionary, content.’ In our case, the same regionalism form – collective Pacific political organisation – but with a different revolutionary content for our times. Marco de Jong also hints at another potential basis for a new political organisation, one that links anti-imperialism with ecological justice in a manner that is consistent with the antagonistic position of the Pacific within the global capitalist order: the Pacific as a ‘sacrifice zone’, that is a military buffer and climate disaster zone created by the world overshooting 1.5°C. Such sacrifice zones must remain excluded from the official narrative of the liberal rules based order under US hegemony for it to appear valid and consistent. And, because of this, they are also the site of transformation of this existing order. It is from such a position that the Pacific struggle not a particular one, but rather one that has universal emancipatory potential.