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The Asian side of the world

Jean-François Sabouret

Part one. Regional dynamics and globalisation

Oceania: dream islands or examples of new world disorder?

Jean-Marc Regnault

Texte intégral

1October 2005

2The political scientist Charles Zorgbibe, in L’Année internationale, exclaimed, “who will ensure the survival of the micro-States of the Pacific?” (mainly situated in the south of the Tropic of Cancer, in the region of the world known as “Oceania”). Ten years later, the situation proved to be going against them.

3The inter-tropical Pacific Island suffered from serious problems to which the world seemed oblivious. This part of the Pacific is not the “new centre of the world”, quite the contrary. It seemed to be forgotten by globalisation. What was the point in such a small population? Were these countries worth the detour for large commercial companies? This region became a victim of the end of the Cold War, with the major donor states turning their attention towards other regions of the world: Australia to Asia and the European Union to former Communist countries. Certain states and countries were plagued with civil war that involved ethnic conflicts such as in the Solomon Islands or Bougainville Island, part of Papua New Guinea. They were faced with chronic political instability, such as in Vanuatu, Nauru and Fiji. The working class population was a victim of corruption among the elite. These islands had become refuges of “dirty money”. The Forum du Pacifique, a highly political organisation of the region’s countries, confirmed this in August 2001: “There is clear evidence that transnational crime is heading towards our region.” Although this region has received the largest amount of aid for development in the world, poverty is continuing to spread. There is a high rate of emigration – given the levels of population – which have declined considerably on some levels. For example, 17,000 people from Wallis Island and Futuna Island, each having a population of 15,000 inhabitants, have immigrated to New Caledonia. Western Samoa has about 179,000 inhabitants, of which 60, 000 live in the United States, 85,000 in New Zealand, 8,000 in Australia and 15,000 in American Samoa. In recent years, health issues have become a worry in some places, such as the disturbing rise of AIDS in Fiji and Papua New Guinea. Rising waters and violent windstorms threaten the very existence of the countries with only atolls. Is democracy possible when tradition or offering and counter-offering are the basis of human relations?

4The large riparian nations, Australia and New Zealand, felt that they did not have the means to ensure order on these vast stretches of land, nor continue helping these countries financially, which misused this public aid. There, as well as elsewhere, September 11th 2001 changed this. Could the great powers neglect this area of instability? Moreover, Australia has harshly felt the repercussions of the Bali assassination attempt on 12th October 2002, which mainly targeted its citizens. The country completely adapted itself to meet the new circumstances and, John Howard, the Conservative Prime Minister who was re-elected in October 2004, no doubt encouraged by the country’s ally, America, decided to restore order. In the Solomon Islands, a task force led by Australia ended the militia’s extortions. In Fiji, an Australian now leads the police force and many military or judicial counsellors are of the same nationality.

5Australia has also decided to intervene in Papua New Guinea to restore order threatened by crime, corruption and political instability. The Papuan government has not accepted what it considered as “interference” in the maintaining of order, finances, tax and justice, as Australia deploys dozens of experts and 160 police officers. A diplomatic crisis broke out between the two countries. Since the end of August 2005, the problem is still being resolved.

6In Nauru, the Australian intervention was carried out by sending exports to prepare large financial reforms since its phosphate resources and tax haven were on the brink of disappearing.

7On 15th August 2003, Australia also placed an Australian at the head of the Pacific Island Forum. John Howard, imitating George Bush, is trying to impose “good governance” in the Pacific. Before the Federal Parliament, on 12th August 2003, John Howard responded to accusations of “neo-colonialism”: “we have countries that are on the brink of chaos, if we do nothing.” On a short trip to Solomon, at the end of December 2003, he added: “[This part of the world is] our terrain, it is our part of the world […] If we were not ready to help our friends in need, nobody else would do it.”

8As for the UN, it intervened to restore peace in Bougainville Island. The OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) has forced several States to review their tax laws and the Financial Action Task Force on Money Laundering (FATF) is conducting a survey on certain practices.

  • 1 Alain Peyrefitte, C’était de Gaulle, vol. 2, Paris, de Fallois/Fayard, 1997, p. 120-121.

9As for France, it has long been poorly perceived in this region where it was thought of as an intruder. On the contrary, France showed severe hostility towards Anglo-Saxon powers since General de Gaulle said to his ministers, “the Anglo-Saxons are taking over everything (...) in the Pacific. When we were not doing anything, they said nothing. But, now that we are, it is scandalous.1” Nuclear testing in French Polynesia and its politics in New Caledonia with regard to the Kanaks provoked a near rejection. The end of the atomic experiments in 1996 and the signing of the Treaty of Rarotonga on denuclearisation, the Matignon Agreement (1988) and the Noumea Convention (1998) having restored peace in New Caledonia and the granting of autonomy to French Polynesia allowed France to create a better image for itself, particularly as the three French entities appeared as islands of peace and prosperity in this drifting Oceanian world. Since 2004, these French territories have been gripped by instability. In New Caledonia, the electors and campaigners of its party have ruled out the historical leader, Jacques Lafleur. Those who now govern the country consist of a mixture of people. The Kanaks have a fixed idea of the constitution that would prevent new arrivals from voting in the local elections for fear of being definitively marginalised. Other political forces would like to see the usual texts be applied to the right to vote. In French Polynesia, the former president, Gaston Flosse, similar to the French government, did not accept the verdict of the polls that, against all odds, had given the victory to a coalition led by the separatist, Oscar Temaru. A crisis that lasted several months greatly dented France’s image. Slowly, Oscar Temaru strengthened his power that was weak. With his own style, President Temaru wanted to embark on a “less arrogant” policy vis-à-vis the Anglo-Saxon countries of the region and looked for new relations with France that could lead to an “Associated State” concept in a decade or so. In Wallis and Futuna, the territory being distinct, the Church plays a considerable role regarding the status of overseas territories in 1961, where three kings represent the customary authority. Exercising justice is shared between the customary authorities and state justice. France has failed to respect the freedom of press so as to not offend the traditional authority. Since the beginning of 2005, a conflict has deepened the battle of interests between supporters of the traditional custom of the old King of Wallis and the “reformers” who wish to modernise the practices and support state officials in their desire to strengthen the power of the old King.

  • 2 See Paul de Deckker et Laurence Kuntz, La bataille de la coutume et ses enjeux pour le Pacifique S (...)

10This region – that the world only knows for its idyllic aspects (dream islands that enjoy the old Tahiti myth) or possibly when a crisis breaks out such as in New Caledonia in 1984 – is, in fact, an area of instability in which certain great powers exercise their hegemony. This is the case for Australia and France. Each has its style, but the Oceanian islands do not seem to be convinced that the best way to solve their problems is by imposing modernity that would make their customs and their traditions disappear2. General de Gaulle had undoubtedly judged things well during his trip in 1956, saying, “I felt that there is a Pacific world.” To study it, we must first “forget” what we have learnt elsewhere.


1 Alain Peyrefitte, C’était de Gaulle, vol. 2, Paris, de Fallois/Fayard, 1997, p. 120-121.

2 See Paul de Deckker et Laurence Kuntz, La bataille de la coutume et ses enjeux pour le Pacifique Sud, Paris, L’Harmattan, 1998.

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