York Center for International & Security Studies
But with the exception of the South Pacific Forum, too often the groups and studies mentioned above have concerned themselves with the security and economic development of a region that might, more accurately, be called Eastern Asia. Indeed, despite lending its name to many of the aforementioned institutions, the Pacific – that is, the many states that make up the Pacific islands– has not made much of an impact in regional security studies.
Perhaps this should not be surprising. The states of the Pacific are small, sometimes just tiny micro-states of a few tens of thousands of people, scattered across an enormous area of ocean. They face few, if any, external military threats and are also distant from the most notorious security hot-spots and flashpoints in the region. But despite their size and isolation, the states of the maritime Pacific are hardly immune from their own security concerns. If there were any doubt of this, it has surely been erased by the events of the past few weeks. On May 19 armed extremists stormed the Fijian Parliament and took members of the multi-ethnic government hostage, including Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry. He was the country’s first leader from its Indian minority under a constitution established in 1997 that gave equal political rights to all citizens. The coup has since turned into a bizarre hostage crisis that has seen the suspension of the constitution, declaration of martial law, a number of deaths and done incalculable damage to Fiji’s tourism-based economy.
Fewer than three weeks later, escalating violence on the island of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands led to the coerced resignation of Prime Minister Bartholomew Ulufa’alu. The conflict between the rival Malaita Eagle Force and the Isatabu Freedom Movement militia groups has seen as many as 20,000 people displaced, numerous deaths and disappearances and violence in the streets of the capital, Honiara. The situation on the island has stabilized at the time of writing and the Australian naval vessel HMAS Tobruk is currently hosting mediation between the parties, but a conflict so deeply grounded in economic inequality, issues concerning transmigration and the control of land, as well as ethnic differences will not be easily resolved.
But while Fiji and the Solomon Islands have managed to capture some headlines and remind people of the potential for instability and insecurity in the Pacific, theirs are far from the only conflicts in the region. Simmering hostility continues to boil under the surface in French-ruled New Caledonia where the indigenous Kanak people are seeking self-determination. In 1997 the government of Papua New Guinea was almost overthrown in a military coup brought about when it attempted to use British and South African mercenaries in the conflict on Bougainville. On Bougainville itself, memories of the decade-long war in which some 10,000 people died, are still fresh. In Tonga, youths attacked Chinese owned businesses last year after there were reports that the government was selling passports to overseas Chinese. In terms of less traditional security challenges, corruption and environmental degradation are rampant in Melanesia and the Pacific has been singled out as a haven for money laundering. A report by a G7 created body, the Financial Action Task Force identified four Pacific states (the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Niue and the Cook Islands) as being of particular concern. None of these developments is especially new. But despite plenty of signs of trouble, events in the Pacific continue to receive too little attention in academic and institutional studies of the ‘Asia-Pacific’. Why?
Partly the answer lies in economics. Until recently, regional officials and many scholars have been mesmerized by the economic potential of Southeast Asia, China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. The two sizeable players in the South Pacific, Australia and New Zealand, have reflected this in their foreign and security policies. In their enthusiasm to engage Southeast Asia, the Pacific has rather fallen by the wayside. This is not to say Australia or New Zealand should think of the Pacific as some sort of private fiefdom. They neither can, nor should try to force their designs on their Pacific island neighbours. But if only because of their propinquity and the greater resources they possess, Australia and New Zealand, together with the regional institutions that claim the Pacific in their names, must play a bigger role in finding solutions for the security problems of the Pacific islands.
More money will not always be the solution, although development assistance could help resolve some of the causes of conflict in the Solomon Islands – the lack of arable land, underemployment and economic inequality. But the provision of technical expertise, the use of preventive diplomacy and the promotion of conflict resolution techniques will also go a long way to helping the Pacific become a more stable and secure place. But just as important will be erasing the artificial intellectual line that is keeping the Pacific from engaging regional institutions and regional neighbours. There need to be closer links between the states of the Pacific and the larger states of the Pacific Rim. Perhaps one good place to start would be to establish a better channel of consultation between the South Pacific Forum and the members of the ASEAN Regional Forum. But academics also have to do their part. Greater space needs to be found in journals, syllabi and classrooms for serious scholarship on the security issues of the contemporary Pacific. Without a more inclusive approach, the full potential of ‘Asia-Pacific’ studies will remain untapped.