21st-Century Geopolitics Of Oceania: Micronesia, Polynesia, And Melanesia
Oceania is the largest region of the world, though it’s also its most scarcely populated. Encompassing Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, and all of the many islands east of the Philippines and Indonesia, this broad stretch of territory is literally transoceanic in scope, though it paradoxically doesn’t seem to have any overt geostrategic significance in modern-day International Relations. It’s been almost exclusively under the control or influence of the Western Powers since the end of World War II, and most people outside of Oceania don’t pay it any attention at all nowadays since events here rarely make global headlines except when natural disasters occur. For all intents and purposes, one might wonder whether there is any modern-day geopolitical significance to this region whatsoever, but the reality is that Oceania is poised to become a central zone of competition in the New Cold War, albeit one which will be kept out of the limelight for the most part because the shadow jostling between Great Powers here probably won’t be dramatic enough to attract much outside attention.
The first part of the research will begin by explaining the broad geopolitical importance of Oceania in the New Cold War, followed by a quick review of the three Pacific Island regions and their regional integration organizations. It will then finish up with a listing of the insular area’s trends and hot spots. The second and final part of the study will focus entirely on Australia and its growing role in the New Cold War, especially as it relates to both China and Indonesia, and aims to demonstrate why this country-continent shouldn’t ever be left out of strategic analyses focusing on this part of the world.
Island Hopping Along The Latin American Silk Road
The Pacific islands of Oceania form an integral part of China’s Sea Lines Of Communication (SLOC) to Latin America, which will become ever more important in the coming decade as the People’s Republic expands its influence in South America, the Caribbean, and Central America through the Transoceanic Railroad (TORR) and Nicaraguan Canal projects. If the reader isn’t already familiar with the 21st-century geopolitics of these parts of the world, then they’re very strongly encouraged to review the author’s book-length analytical series on them (accessible in the previous hyperlinks) in order to obtain a deeper understanding of how and why the Western Hemisphere is turning into China’s preferred asymmetrical battleground for countering the US’ South China Sea intrigue. Accepting the trend of deeper Chinese interest and New Silk Road engagement with the Americas, it follows that the transit region of Oceania acquires its own related significance to Beijing by default in becoming an indispensable component to its plans.
The problem, however, is that Oceania is still pretty much under the control or influence of the US, Australia, New Zealand, and France, or in other words, the unipolar world, and this is demonstrated most clearly through the “Compact of Free Association” that the Micronesian states signed with Washington following their “independence”, Australia’s military and diplomatic involvement in Melanesian conflicts, and France and New Zealand’s territorial holdings in Polynesia. Moreover, roughly a third of the countries which still have official relations with Taiwan (6) are in Oceania, and it’s just as important for China to “flip” their loyalty as it is for Beijing to do so with the remaining Latin American Cold War “holdovers” too. This is difficult to do because of the overwhelming economic sway that the unipolar world holds over these states through the tourism, fishing, and tax haven industries, as well as the large amount of aid that they give to these commercially despondent countries.
What China needs to do is find a creative way to “win” them over to its side, and it could potentially do this by incorporating them into its One Belt One Road vision of New Silk Road connectivity. Although their domestic markets are incomparable to any of China’s other partners and therefore mostly insignificant in the consumption sense, these countries could play a valuable role if the emerging seabed mining industry becomes large-scale and profitable. In the event that it does, then China could work out a way to help these countries reinvest their profits into sovereign wealth funds linked to New Silk Road projects and institutions (such as the New Development Bank) in order to help them establish economic sovereignty and liberate themselves from their dependency on Western aid, tourism, and offshore tax-evading holdings. The issue, though, is that China isn’t the only Great Power who can provide this opportunity.
The existing regional hegemons of the US, France, and Australia are capable of carrying out seabed mining operations and starting sovereign wealth funds, to say nothing of India and Japan, both of which are presently cooperating on the pan-hemispheric “Asia-Africa Growth Corridor” (also known as the “Freedom Corridor”) and are ready to challenge China wherever they can. Japan already has an historical legacy of influence in Micronesia following its post-World War I administration of the islands from Germany (and prior to the US’ control of them after World War II), while India is always eager to use its colonial-era diaspora to make inroads in some of the former British colonies such as those in Oceania. Polynesia is mostly a French geopolitical playground, so it wouldn’t be a problem for Paris’ allied partners to get involved here, either. China therefore has its work cut out for it, and it’s for this reason why the Pacific islands of Oceania are becoming a zone of competition in the New Cold War.
Excluding Australia, all of Oceania is comprised of three separate ‘nesia chains of islands –Micronesia, Polynesia, and Melanesia – which will be briefly reviewed in this section:
The northernmost string of islands includes the nominally independent countries of Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and Kiribati, as well as the US territories of Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands. Kiribati was a British colony and Guam came under American control after the end of the 1898 Spanish-American War, but the rest of the islands were previously controlled by a succession of Spain, Germany, and then Japan before passing into the US’ hands after World War II as part of the “Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands”. The relevant states of Palau, Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands agreed to the so-called “Compact Of Free Association” (COFA) with the US in order to become “independent”, though the agreement essentially makes them UN-recognized American vassals because Washington still retains authority over all of their military-related responsibilities.
In view of this, the island states of the Micronesian region basically function as a large US naval reserve for entrenching American power in the Western Pacific, with Guam being the geostrategic pivot in this arrangement crucially located between Japan and Australia, and within striking distance of China and Indonesia. To put the sheer scope of this COFA into another perspective, its total area is approximately the same size as the continental US. The US abused this state of affairs during the Old Cold War in order to test nuclear weapons here, and it nowadays sees the Micronesian region (and especially Guam) as its forward-operating base for advancing the so-called “Pivot to Asia”. Furthermore, these islands lay right along China’s shipping routes with Latin America, so Beijing has no choice but to traverse through them en route to its New Silk Road megaprojects of TORR and the Nicaraguan Canal.
The largest of the ‘nesias, it forms a triangle stretching from Hawaii in the north, Easter Island to the east, and New Zealand in the south. The latter state administers several territories as part of its “realm”, while France controls the many islands making up what is officially called “French Polynesia”. The most important state in this region is Samoa, which is bordered to the east by the territory of American Samoa that’s still under the control of the US. This country and its American-administered neighbor are important because they’re roughly halfway between Hawaii and New Zealand and very proximate to nearby Fiji, which is the South Pacific pivot state and the tail end of the Melanesian island chain.
The most geostrategically important part of the Oceania islands apart from Australia is Melanesia, which is also the most populous and economically functional of the three examined regions. Fiji, as mentioned in the last subsection, is the best performing Melanesian state in terms of its political and economic stability, though it did undergo three coups in 1987, 2000, and 2006. Even so, it’s comparatively better than the civil war-wrecked failed state of the Solomon Islands, which only recently saw the departure of international “peacekeeping” forces in summer 2017 after the 14-year-long “Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands” (RAMSI) finally ended, and the dysfunctional “non-state” of Papua New Guinea (PNG) which resembles an Afghan-African hybrid of militant tribalism with similar mineral (copper)-energy (LNG) riches.
Fiji is wrought with ethnic tensions between the Melanesian majority and the Indian minority, which in one way or another influenced the three coups in its history, yet it’s also come to be China’s regional lynchpin because of its relative stability and overall friendliness to the People’s Republic, the second of which was immensely helped in part by the “international community’s” (West’s) failed attempt at “isolating” it after the latest 2006 military coup. As for the Solomon Islands, this country structurally resembles Papua New Guinea in that it never truly embraced the modern-day state system of International Relations and instead saw the enduring predominance of tribal politics, ergo the deadly violence which sparked the 2003 RAMSI intervention. About PNG, it’s regarded as one of the most ethno-linguistically diverse regions in the world because its mountainous and jungled terrain preserved and accentuated local differences over the years into separate identity groups.
When speaking about the strategic arc of islands northeast of Oceanic hegemon Australia, one must also talk about PNG’s Autonomous Region of Bougainville and France’s territory of New Caledonia, both of which are approaching independence referendums in 2019 and 2018 respectively. The first was the focal point of a prolonged conflict across the decades over a combination of local political rights and wealth redistribution from the Panguna copper mine, which at its last point descended into a Hobbesian civil war on the island of Bougainville itself. The second one, New Caledonia, is rich in nickel and has a much more peaceful history, but has progressively moved towards independence over the years. If either of them become official UN-recognized states, then they might turn into the centerpieces of a renewed round of geopolitical jockeying in the New Cold War, especially since China might sense some strategic opportunities to strengthen its rising regional standing.
The entire Oceania region can be organized into the regional integration groups:
Pacific Islands Forum:
This group encompasses all of Oceania – Micronesia, Polynesia, Melanesia, and Australia – and is similar in a structural sense to the Organization of American States (OAS) in the Western Hemisphere. The main goal is to enhance all-around cooperation between its members, which includes one day clinching a free trade agreement and strengthening their transportation ties. Being the most authoritative regional organization, the Pacific Islands Forum is also used to ‘legitimize’ military interventions such as RAMSI. Although all members are nominally equal within the group, Australia has undoubtedly emerged as the hegemon for historical-military reasons.
Compact Of Free Association (COFA):
Although not officially a regional integration organization per se, COFA represents the most comprehensive integration format in the post-independence Micronesian area. Each COFA is a bilateral agreement between the US and its former (and current, in the case of the Northern Mariana Islands) protectorates, but the fact that 4 separate polities stretching across an area almost equal to that of the continental US are involved in this sort of arrangement is significant enough of a strategic factor to highlight in its own right. Accordingly, since the common institutional denominator between them is the US, this naturally makes Washington the unrivalled hegemon over this broad swath of space, though with the crucial caveat being that this is only so long as the agreements are periodically renewed.
Melanesian Spearhead Group:
Being the premier integrational mechanism for Melanesia, which itself is the most geostrategically significant of the Oceanic areas for regional hegemon Australia due to geographic, economic, and demographic reasons, the Melanesian Spearhead Group deserves to be paid attention to by outside observers. What makes it particularly interesting is that West Papua, formally a province of Indonesia but with a long-running legacy of separatist struggle, is an official member, while its legal Indonesian administrator was recently admitted to the bloc as an associate member.
West Papua is a part of the Melanesian region because of its geo-demographic characteristics, and the Melanesian Spearhead Group has always been sympathetic to its pro-independence cause. Nevertheless, they can’t ignore the fact that Indonesia still rules over the western half of New Guinea, as well as the ethno-geographic Melanesian provinces of Maluku, North Maluku, and East Nusa Tenggara, each of which are represented in the bloc at the governor level.
After Indonesia’s admission as an associate member, however, there have been concerns that Jakarta might exert influence on the rest of the actual members of the organization in order to dilute their support for West Papuan separatism. Indonesia has every interest in doing this, just as West Papua has its own obvious reasons for opposing it, but it looks unlikely that the Melanesian countries will be able to resist Jakarta’s sway for long in this regards after having already “buckled” in accepting it into the group in an associate capacity in the first place. In the future, the Melanesian Spearhead Group might even serve as a bridgehead for Indonesia into Australia’s traditional Oceanic sphere of influence.
Jakarta isn’t the only extra-regional power which stands to insert itself into the Melanesian Spearhead Group, though, since China could find a convenient avenue to promote its interests if it’s able to successfully court Bougainville and/or New Caledonia after their prospective independences. It should be remembered that both polities will have referendums on their future statuses in 2019 and 2018, respectively, and that while the former isn’t part of the bloc (yet), the latter is already represented at the party level through the “Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front”.
Polynesian Leaders Group:
As its name implies, this organization brings together the leaders of the Polynesian states and was formed in response to the Melanesian Spearhead Group. The three “edges” of the “Polynesian Triangle” – Hawaii, New Zealand, and Easter Island – aren’t formal members but are represented at the observer level, though accounting for the two categories of participants, this format is important for bringing together the US, France, New Zealand, and Samoa. The Polynesian Leaders Group functions as a forum for advancing “soft” integration in the cultural, educational, and environmental spheres, and is pretty much a non-factor in International Relations because the disproportionate distances and sizes between each member render any significant geopolitical integration all but impossible.
Interfacing With The Islands
The three most geopolitically pertinent extra-regional Great Powers of China, India, and Japan interface with the Pacific island countries through the following frameworks:
China-Pacific Islands Economic Development And Cooperation Forum:
Held every couple of years, China arranges to meet with the leaders of the Pacific island countries in order to expand relations with them, focusing mostly on the economic and development aspects of their bilateral relationships. China is on track to displace Japan and become the region’s second-largest donor behind Australia, proving just how effective Beijing has been in boosting ties with these states over the past decade. Going forward, China will continue to rely on frameworks such as this one to deepen its influence over the region and incorporate these countries into the New Silk Road.
Japan-Pacific Islands/Alliance Leaders Meeting (PALM):
Known by two separate names which nonetheless lead to the organization’s same PALM acronym, this format has been Tokyo’s most preferred method of interfacing with the Pacific island states, and can be said to be a competitor to China’s initiatives. Given that China is on pace to outstrip Japan in providing aid to a region which Tokyo had hitherto taken for granted as being within a shared sphere of interest with its Western/unipolar allies, it’s possible that Japan will pay more attention to this forum in the future as it seeks to restore its imminently lost edge over China.
Forum for India-Pacific Island Cooperation (FIPIC):
Founded just a few years ago in 2014, FIPIC is India’s first foray in spreading its influence beyond its traditional namesake body of water and sphere of influence, and into a broader domain that overlaps with that of its newfound Japanese, American, and Australian “China Containment Coalition” (CCC) partners. Considering the hemispheric-wide joint Indian-Japanese cooperation on the “Freedom Corridor”, it’s possible that New Delhi will also work together with Tokyo to make rapid inroads in this region as both Great Powers gear up to economically confront China in this part of the world.
Here are the prevailing geopolitical trends taking place in Oceania:
3 Regions, 3 Hegemons:
Putting aside the continent-country of Australia, Oceania is divided into Micronesia, Polynesia, and Melanesia, which are presided over by the US via COFAs (so long as they’re periodically renewed before expiring), France through its territorial possessions, and Australia because of its colonial history in Papua New Guinea and Canberra-led RAMSI intervention in the Solomon Islands, respectively.
The Fiji Fulcrum:
Fiji is the multipolar magnet drawing China into the region as a balancing actor, and it importantly straddles the two regions of Melanesia and Polynesia. There are also opportunities for India to get more actively involved here as well if it can successfully leverage its ethno-compatriots as business and soft power advantages.
The Papua New Guinean Autonomous Region of Bougainville and the French territory of New Caledonia are slated to go the polls in independence referendums in 2019 and 2018, respectively, which could end up seeing these mineral-rich (copper and nickel, correspondingly) islands become UN-recognized countries in their own right.
This could also create a renewed Great Power competition for these countries’ loyalty, too, especially as it relates to their recognition of Beijing or Taipei, the latter of which would merely be a stand-in for the Western/unipolar powers. Moreover, India and Japan could be expected to join forces in getting in on the action too, thereby opening up another front of soft rivalry in the New Cold War.
The ideology of “Melanesian Socialism” promoted by Vanuatu’s first Prime Minister Father Walter Hadye Lini has been dormant for decades and might never be revived, but his associated proposal for a “Melanesian Federal Union” might see a second life if Bougainville and New Caledonia become independent and the smaller states of the Melanesian Spearhead Group decide to strengthen their integration with one another as a result.
Bougainville is geo-demographically part of the Solomon Islands chain and even declared itself as the “Republic of the North Solomons” during its first 1975-1976 separatist campaign, so there’s a chance that it might unite with its southern brethren upon independence. In that case, its combined population of roughly 800,000 would be close to Fiji’s at 900,000 and therefore theoretically balance out the prospective union. However, Vanuatu sits in the middle of these two nations, so it would logically have to be integrated into any federal state as well, though its 270,000 people would do better joining together with nearby similarly sized New Caledonia in order to provide a third “kingmaker” federal entity to this arrangement.
There are no indications that anything of the sort described above is being seriously planned by any of the examined parties except for perhaps the union of Bougainville and the Solomon Islands (which isn’t a certainty in any case for security-economic reasons on the former’s part), but if a “Melanesian Federal Union” ever does come into existence, it would give these small, resource-rich, and geostrategically positioned states more flexibility in interfacing with the many Great Powers that are competing over them.
Great Power Convergence:
Oceania is fast becoming a meeting ground of the world’s most eminent Great Powers. The existing regional hegemons of the US, Japan, France (EU), and Australia are now joined by China, India, and perhaps soon Indonesia (through its associate membership in the Melanesian Spearhead Group), and Russia has even made a foray into the region as well through its arms sales to the multipolar magnet of Fiji.
All of the converging Great Powers are interested in several things, be they Oceania’s geostrategic position astride transoceanic trade routes and China’s Latin American Silk Roads, newly tapped energy resources such as Papua New Guinea’s LNG, or the minerals that could be obtained from Bougainville, New Caledonia, and general seabed mining operations.
The geostrategic enter of insular gravity is unquestionably Fiji because of its relative population size, stability, and market potential, but this could shift westward with Bougainville and/or New Caledonia’s independence(s). Samoa and its American-administered eastern islands are also important, but they’re too closely aligned with the US and unduly distant from Melanesia to become the center of China’s regional engagement efforts.
The most important region of Oceania is Melanesia because of its location, population, and natural resource potential, and it’s also where the most likely hotspots will erupt. Micronesia and Polynesia are too small and geographically isolated from one another and the rest of the world (especially Australia) to ever develop into much of a problem, and even in the off event that they do, their security issues could be easily resolved by a small US and/or French intervention in the relevant area. Melanesia, however, is very close to Australia, and any destabilization here could set off a regional chain reaction in other islands and also spark an outflow of “Weapons of Mass Migration” to the hegemonic country-continent.
Bearing that in mind, here are the four most probable contingencies that could pop up in Melanesia in the near future:
Unipolar Coup In Fiji:
Fiji’s current geostrategic trajectory as a Chinese-friendly multipolar state makes it absolutely indispensable to the emerging Multipolar World Order’s prospects of incorporating Oceania with time, though it’s for this key reason why the existing Unipolar World Order has a stake in reversing the political course of this pivot state. If Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama loses his grip on the military, despite having had enough power over it to set into motion the latest two coups in 2000 and 2006, then the country could see a dramatic reorientation of its foreign policy priorities. Another possible scenario is that a Color Revolution unfolds which ends up pitting the majority native Fijians against the minority Indians and ultimately descends into a Hybrid War if it’s unsuccessful in squeezing the desired political concessions from the government.
Papua New Guinea Island Secessionism:
Bougainville is a special historical-geographic case for Papua New Guinea, but it’s conceivable that other similar scenarios could come into play if Great Power and/or corporate interests clash over energy-mineral interests in the future, potentially if Port Moresby signs strategic deals with Beijing to the chagrin of its Western overlords.
It’s difficult to gauge the prospects of this happening because not much is known to the outside world about the specific ethno-tribal makeup of the country, nor is there much information available about the distribution of various resources across its territory, but it nevertheless shouldn’t be discounted for the plausible reason explained above.
Moreover, there’s already a clear trend of centrifugal forces tearing apart the ultra-diverse African countries that Papua New Guinea is structurally similar to, which adds objective weight to the argument that something just like this could happen in the island state as well, possibly furthered by the strategic use of NGOs and Color Revolution technology.
A Second Solomon Islands Civil War:
The 14-year-long RAMSI mission came an end in summer 2017, but it failed to address the endemic problems which lead to the tumultuous period of time that the Solomon Islands refer to as “The Tensions”, leaving such explosive issues as ethnic rivalries, land rights, and systemic corruption unresolved. Although some superficial progress was made over the more than a decade that Australian-led international forces were based in the archipelago, this didn’t result in “state-building”, and the country still remains very much like the tribal interior of Papua New Guinea on the local level.
This is concerning because it means that another round of violence could easily spring up, one which would definitely result in a second Australian military intervention per the terms agreed to between both sides in their August 2017 security deal, whereby Honiara could request Canberra’s rapid response involvement if national stability begins to deteriorate again.
At this point, it’s impossible to speculate on exactly what could set off a renewed round of violence in the islands, but the most probable scenarios have to do with a continuation conflict between the people of Guadalcanal island and neighboring Malaita, which was at the core of the “The Tensions” in the first place. Another possibility, which the Solomon Islands Prime Minister warned about in the previous hyperlink, is that Papua New Guinea doesn’t recognize Bougainville’s 2019 independence vote and that another civil war there spreads destabilization to the island nation.
If everything goes smoothly and Bougainville achieves independence without incident, then this might also ironically be a destabilizing factor in and of itself if irredentists take up arms against the will of one or the other government in attempting to forcibly unite the two states. Moreover, even if there’s a peaceful unification, tensions might develop further down the line between the two prospectively federalized entities.
Australian-Led Military Intervention:
For the three reasons mentioned above but mostly in relevance to the last one pertaining to the Solomon Islands and Australia’s enduring military commitment there as promulgated by the August 2017 security agreement, there’s a moderate chance that Canberra will involve itself in another Melanesian intervention sometime down the line.
Although these are controversial and polarizing engagements in Australian civil society, they serve a cynical strategic purpose in the sense that they provide valuable training for its armed forces in the event that any similar sort of scenario arises in Indonesia which necessitates their involvement.
In fact, a local, provincial, or nationwide breakdown of law and order in Indonesia along the lines of what happened in the Solomon Islands, before that in East Timor, and during the aftermath of Suharto’s resignation could actually be somewhat advantageous to Australia and its Western/unipolar allies if it diminishes the capacity of a multipolar-leaning Indonesia to exert a positive influence on regional affairs.
Additionally, some in the Australian “deep state” (military, intelligence, and diplomatic bureaucracies) might see a benefit in creating a Christian “security buffer” in Indonesia’s outer isles as a “geopolitical defense” against the rest of the majority-Muslim country per the “Clash of Civilizations” blueprint in dividing and ruling the Eastern Hemisphere.
Be that as it may, the destabilization of Indonesia – whether “naturally occurring” or externally provoked – carries with it the immense risk of flooding Australia with “Weapons of Mass Migration”, and this in turn cyclically explains why Canberra “trains” for handling such contingencies through its Melanesian “peacekeeping” operations.
DISCLAIMER: The author writes for this publication in a private capacity which is unrepresentative of anyone or any organization except for his own personal views. Nothing written by the author should ever be conflated with the editorial views or official positions of any other media outlet or institution.