03.06.2024 Author: Ksenia Muratshina

The liberation of Oceania

Anti-French protests in New Caledonia

Have you ever been to Tahiti?

Geographically, Oceania consists of a large number of small and large islands located in the South Pacific Ocean. In the mind of the average European, this part of the world has always been associated with something alien, unfamiliar, remote and exotic. Moreover, the average European was and still is convinced that it was his compatriots who discovered Oceania and, of course, brought civilization there, and that before that there was nothing worthy of attention there at all. Which is fundamentally wrong, as Oceania’s civilizations developed independently many millennia before foreign navigators began to explore the waters of the South Pacific.

To this day, despite the efforts of scientists, including the outstanding role of Russian specialists, starting with Nikolai Miklouho-Maclay, in learning about the lives of the peoples in the region, the history of Oceania remains insufficiently researched. Among historical researchers there are some discussions about whether, in terms of their civilization, the peoples of Oceania are closer to those of South America or of South-East Asia. The earliest archaeological evidence of human activity on the islands of Oceania is over 40,000 years old. The ancient people of Oceania knew how to navigate by the stars and were highly-skilled sailors, at the same time they had a profound knowledge of astronomy, meteorology and hydrology, honored their ancestors, farmed, had complex religious ideas, built their own pyramids, left behind objects of art of high artistic value, including many mysterious megaliths and petroglyphs.

In the modern age, the global development of technologies and a new era of geographical discoveries brought European colonizers to Oceania. All the colonial empires made their mark in the region, and by the beginning of the twentieth century it was completely divided between Britain, France, Germany and the United States. World War I partially reshuffled the owners of the colonies, but did not change the main thing—the subordinate position of the peoples of Oceania. In World War II the region became a theater of war between the United States and Japan. The major role played by the US in Oceania grew markedly after the end of World War II, and continued in subsequent decades, including through “free associations,” which will be discussed in more detail later. It was not until the second half of the twentieth century that the island states began to declare independence. The British and Americans formally withdrew from the islands, leaving them with a colonial economic structure and colossal radioactive contamination from numerous nuclear tests, which they had conducted in their overseas possessions. France, which behaved in a similar way in its overseas territories, continued with its policy for even longer.

The London Regional Committee

Modern Oceania, in terms of its political geography, is a paradox: it consists of states whose independence is officially proclaimed and recognized, and they even participate in regional international organizations such as the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) and the Organization of African, Caribbean and Pacific States (OACPS), but none of these countries can be called independent in the full sense of the word. The largest group of states today remains in one way or another within the sphere of influence of the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand, including through membership in the (British) Commonwealth of Nations. These are Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, the Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu and Kiribati. Formally, these are all considered sovereign states and are members of the UN and other international organizations, but ties with the former colonizer remain strong to this day.

The Commonwealth involves its members in a large number of cooperation projects and programs, organizes regular meetings of its member states, generously provides scholarships for education and nurtures loyal administrative elites, but is in no hurry to solve the problems of these countries and help them create competitive economies, nor is it engaged in promoting their industrialization or developing their education system and scientific sector, or providing grants or technical assistance to support these sectors. It has no interest in such development—in fact, it is much more convenient for the outside world to control such countries, whose development is hampered by the post-colonial structure of their economies and a low level of general education, and to spread its concepts of “democracy” and “human rights” in them.

Territories and associations

Countries in a “free association” have less sovereignty than those in the Commonwealth. The Cook Islands and Niue are in a “free association” with New Zealand, while the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands and Palau are in a “free association” with the United States. The status of free association falls short of full sovereignty, and means that the economy of these countries is tied to that of their “Big Brother,” with their agriculture and extractive industries serving its interests. In addition, the members of the association share a single currency and, in the case of New Zealand’s subordinate territories, citizenship as well. All foreign policy and security issues are solely the responsibility of the main partner. The countries associated with the US are members of the UN and other international organizations. The members of New Zealand’s “free associations” in international institutions can best be described by the words “folding chair.” As members of the PIF and OACPS, they are only allowed to work in some of the UN’s structural units.

The most powerless group in Oceania, however, are the so-called “territories” or “overseas collectivities.” In reality, these are administrative-territorial units of other states, and are fully subordinated to their governmental administration. Wallis and Futuna, New Caledonia and French Polynesia belong to France, while Tokelau belongs to New Zealand. They are represented in the PIF and participate in some UN bodies, but do not have any autonomy in terms of their foreign policy.

Both states in a free association and territories/overseas collectivities tend to have a depressed economy, are dependent on foreign states or bodies, and have low positions in world rankings of living standards. The activities of pro-independence campaigners are severely repressed. Instead, the people in these countries are forced to live under the existing power structures, and are subject to overseas masters. Public administration in the New Zealand territories is based on a rather strange system which can be compared to subcontracting: the local authorities are subordinate to a representative appointed by New Zealand, while the head of state of New Zealand itself is the British monarch.

The ears of geopolitics

So what is going on? The West, which has torn Kosovo away from Serbia and is constantly adding fuel to the Taiwan conflict, does not seem to see the beam in its own eye—namely the continuing colonial domination of Oceania. Is it unable to see it? More accurately, it does not want to see it. And this is not just because of prestige and image, or the chronic Western belief in its own exceptionalism and its old colonial habits. A lot of it is due to geopolitics. The involvement of geopolitical interests is evident in every colonial and neo-colonial relationship in Oceania. A closer look at all these territories, collectivities, associate states and members of the Commonwealth reveals that each of them has not only a unique geographical position in the Pacific Basin, but also something valuable in terms of natural resources. These resources include minerals (e.g., New Caledonia’s reserves include gold, silver, nickel, chromium, cobalt and other resources) and forests (e.g., Vanuatu’s vast tropical forests), commercially valuable fish (today’s European Union is the world’s largest importer of fish, and a significant proportion of it comes from Oceania) and even fresh water, such as in the extensive river system of Papua New Guinea. But the most important resource of small countries—a human rather than a natural resource—is their voice in the international community. While they may not have full autonomy in decision-making, they do have a voice, and whoever controls their foreign policy can accordingly command additional votes in favor of their concepts and resolutions in international organizations. That is why the representatives of Oceania, for whom, in principle, the conflicts in distant Europe would not appear to be of particular importance, tend to vote in favor of the West in the UN and support Western anti-Russian initiatives. As for regional organizations, through the membership of territories, associate states etc. the West is able to directly influence the policy of international institutions on a regional scale.

Saving the drowning

In the past centuries the world has seen many hard-fought and bloody anti-colonial struggles. The current situation in New Caledonia shows that those struggles, and colonialism itself, are not over. The main problem of colonial and neo-colonial relations is that national economies are mired in an outdated resource structure. Not all Oceania’s states are able to control their natural resource sector at the state level and maintain a multi-lateral policy in the way that, for example, Papua New Guinea does. In general, the countries of Oceania do not use their rich natural resources for their own comprehensive and thorough modernization, but instead the existing system is designed to ensure their continuing corruption and dependence on external partners, for whom they serve as trade agents and to whom they remain in financial bondage. We should not underestimate the fact that the West is in charge of their world view.

Now the countries of Oceania are stepping up their cooperation with China and India, but it is difficult to predict the results and effects of these interactions on their socio-economic development, and how different the new ties will be from their links with their former colonial masters. The most pressing problem facing Oceania today—climate change—is not being addressed by any foreign powers. On the whole, perhaps it is still possible to save the drowning—in all senses of the word—but it seems that this can only be done if the countries in question can mobilize their internal resources, strengthen their state power, upgrade their education systems and scientific institutions, and develop competitive and self-sufficient economies. And only if their former colonizers and contemporary neo-colonialists can stop poking their noses into their affairs.


Ksenia Muratshina, PhD in History, Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Southeast Asia, Australia and Oceania of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook

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