The not-so-pacific Pacific
While the world warily watches the highly flammable Persian Gulf, another nuclear-age drama is being enacted in the far reaches of the Pacific. Ironically, the "Ocean of Peace" is being transformed into one of the most dangerous parts of the globe. As the recent military coup in Fiji amply demonstrates, a high stakes game is being played where island micro-states - following centuries of colonialism - are attempting to pick their way between superpower hegemony and economic and political survival. Among those islands still under the colonial yoke, strident nationalist movements are forging a new regional spirit to support a nuclear-free and independent Pacific.
The drive for nonalignment is rubbing against American - and to a lesser extent French - desires to shape the region's destiny. In Fiji, it is clear that the US is benefiting from the May 14 coup, which abolished a new coalition government's ban on visits by nuclear warships. Just west of Fiji, in the Republic of Vanuatu (formerly New Hebrides), a fishing contract with the USSR was finalized in January, to the displeasure of the Reagan administration. The indigenous Kanak people of New Caledonia, south of Vanuatu, have increased their agitation for independence in what promises to ignite into a bloody civil war in the far-flung French territory. And the minuscule Republic of Belau (formerly Palau) has just voted for the ninth time since 1979 to uphold its unprecedented antinuclear constitution. A consistent theme crosscutting all of these recent Pacific events is the issue of sovereignty after centuries of blackbirding, missionary zealotry, economic exploitation and nuclear experimentation, which continue to this day.
Who Was Behind the Fiji Coup?
When Lt. Col. Sitiveni Rabuka and his military conspirators stormed Fiji's Parliament House on May 14, the one-month-old coalition government of Prime Minister Timoci Bavadra ended abruptly. Upon taking office after the April 12 election, Bavadra (a medical doctor) instituted a progressive program of domestic and foreign policy reforms in the wake of the 17-year rule of staunchly pro-Western Sir Kamisese Ratu Mara. Domestically, Bavadra expanded medical care, resolved to protect Fijian timber resources (which were often sold by the Mara government without the owner's consent), created an Institute for Fijian Language and Culture and promised greater access for Fijians to Fiji Development Bank loans that had been going to foreign-owned businesses. "We have done in four weeks for poor people," said Dr. Bavadra, "what Mara's Alliance Party could not do in 17 years". But most controversial was the nascent government's nonaligned foreign policy, which banned port visits by nuclear-laden warships.
Although no direct link of US involvement in the Fijian coup has yet surfaced, a plethora of circumstantial evidence suggests that Washington was more than a casual bystander. Fijian political scientist James Anthony cites the "timely" visit of ex-deputy director of the CIA and current chief UN delegate Gen. Vernon Walters to Fiji just two weeks before the coup. According to Anthony - who directs the Honolulu-based International Movement for Democracy in Fiji - General Walters "badgered" Foreign Minister Krishna Datt about the nonnuclear ship policy during his early May visit.
Most of the major media cited "ethnic rivalries" between the indigenous Melanesian Fijians and the Indo-Fijians (brought to Fiji more than a century ago by the British to harvest sugar cane) as the cause of the coup, but James Anthony sees it differently. "In actuality," said Anthony during a recent interview, "it was the US's policy of 'strategic denial' that caused our coup." In a paper written in 1985 for the UN University's Project on Militarization in the Pacific, Anthony predicted that the Pentagon's "strategic denial" policy was anathema to democratic institutions throughout the Pacific region. Stating that the policy of strategic denial is clearly delineated in such monographs as the 1980 National Defense University work entitled Oceania and the United States by John Dorrance, a Pentagon Pacific analyst, Anthony spells out the US policy:
What emerges is that "strategic denial" is now very much the cornerstone of American policy in the region. Its pivotal preoccupation is the "right" (of the US) to "deny access to the islands to any present or potential enemy and to assure that, whatever political changes may take place...the government thereof will remain friendly to the interests of the United States."
Translated into operational terms this means that the US reserves the right to prevent, by whatever means necessary, any Pacific island state from entering into any foreign relationship of which the US does not approve.
Although Bavadra's overthrow was viewed as the first coup in the South Pacific, Anthony believes it was preceded by a string of related events. These include the June 1985 (still unsolved) assassination of Belau's first elected president, Haruo Remeliik, and the sabotage of the Greenpeace flagship Rainbow Warrior by French agents the following month. "We are beginning to see," said Anthony, "the Latin Americanization of the Pacific region."
One of the most progressive new island nations is Vanuatu, a cluster of 82 islands about 1,500 miles northeast of Sydney. Having signed a $1.5 million one-year accord with the Soviet government on January 27, Vanuatu gained a degree of notoriety by permitting eight purse seiners and small support ships to fish within the 200-mi exclusive economic zone (EEZ) that surrounds the archipelago. In addition, the tiny Soviet fleet will have port access for supplies and crew changes. Fearing the creation of a "Pacific Cuba," the United States was quick to respond. On February 2, State Department spokesperson Charles Redman said, "We have called the Vanuatu government's attention to the fact that Soviet fishing operations are often a cover for other activities;" for example, intelligence gathering. Economically strapped Vanuatu - having just suffered the wrath of a horrendous February typhoon that resulted in the loss of more than 60 people and caused about $200 million in damage - sees no problem with the presence of the Soviet ships, so long as they pay for their catch. Incidents like the recent seizure by Kiribati (which itself had a similar Soviet fishing agreement in 1986) of a US-owned purse seiner, the Tradition, for poaching in its waters have served to undercut US objections. The seizure of the Tradition follows the capture by the Solomon Islanders in September 1984 of the US-owned Jeanette Diana for illegal fishing in that nation's EEZ. At its recent annual conference in Apia, Western Samoa, the 15-member South Pacific Forum condemned in its communiqué "in the strongest possible terms the continued illegal fishing activities of United States purse seiners and other foreign fishing vessels within the 200-mile EEZs of its member states".
When Vanuatu gained independence from joint Anglo-French rule on July 30, 1980, Father Walter Lini (an Anglican priest who led the independence struggle) was installed as Vanuatu's first prime minister. Considered by its neighbors to be the most progressive Pacific state (and one of the mainstays of the "spearhead group" consisting of Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu), this new Pacific nation (with a population of 128,000) is the only regional entity to belong to the Non-Aligned Movement, and indeed, sits on its coordinating bureau. In a recent interview, Robert Van Lierop, Vanuatu's ambassador to the UN, articulated his country's nonaligned policy:
A country like Vanuatu is extremely vulnerable. One of the best things a small country can do is to let the world know that it is there and that it has policies, particularly policies that it has developed without guidance from larger powers.
Concerning the recent criticism from the US and Australia about the Soviet fishing agreement. Van Lierop said, Vanuatu is "not interested in either superpower asserting military hegemony over it. Rather, we believe in establishing commercial relations with both of them."
One of the South Pacific's powderkegs is New Caledonia, which lies south of Vanuatu and about 800 miles east of Australia. Acquired by France in 1853 as a penal colony. New Caledonia is about to erupt in ethnic warfare. At the center of the turmoil are its demography and disputes over land tenure. The indigenous Kanaks have become - like the Melanesian Fijians - a minority in their own land. They make up about 42 percent of the total population of 145,000 but reside on only 15 percent of the habitable land, in reservations not unlike South Africa's Bantustans. French settlers, known as Caldoches, have been migrating to the colony for more than a century. Included in this group are hundreds of right-wing militarists who, having fled Indochina in 1954, Algeria in 1962 and most recently Vanuatu in 1980, now view New Caledonia as their last stand; today there are some 54,000 Caldoches. Centered around the "Paris of the Pacific" capital of Nouméa, the Caldoches control the lion's share of the economy. The remainder of the population consists of 29,000 Pacific islanders and Asians who were lured to the Melanesian nation by lucrative employment opportunities in the now-depressed nickel industry. (New Caledonia possesses the third-largest reserves in the world, and one of this nickel's byproducts is cobalt - a strategic metal critical to the manufacture of jet engines.) Included in the ethnic brew are some 8,000 French soldiers stationed in the island outpost to "maintain order."
Following a series of violent skirmishes between the Kanaks and the Caldoches, the majority of Kanak factions merged into the Kanak Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS) in the summer of 1984. On December 1, 1984, the FLNKS swore in a provisional government as the first step in creating the independent state of Kanaky, and installed independence leader Jean-Marie Tjibaou as president. It demanded an immediate referendum on independence in which only Kanaks could vote, realizing that they would be outflanked by a coalition of the more numerous Caldoches, Polynesians and Asians, who are economically linked by the nickel industry. Clashes between anti-independence Caldoche factions (principally the Assembly for the Republic of Caledonia Party, or RPCR) and the FLNKS erupted in late December 1984, and by January the following year violence brought the death toll to 20, including two of Tjibaou's brothers.
In May 1985 the FLNKS-after much internal debate - decided to accept a new initiative offered by French Prime Minister Laurent Fabius. The so-called Fabius Plan called for economic reforms to reverse inequities between Kanaks and Caldoches, and called for four regional councils, which held elections in September 1985. With a record-setting 80 percent of the New Caledonian electorate taking part in the election, the FLNKS won in three of the four regions for the council seats. However, on the key question of independence for the French territory, 61 percent voted against it and only 35 percent voted in favor.
In March 1986, with the rise of Jacques Chirac to prime minister in the French government, the situation in New Caledonia soured. Bernard Pons, the new Minister for Overseas Departments and Territories, announced in May that a new referendum would be set for July 1987, with voters offered a choice between the "road to independence" or remaining a colonial territory of France.
With the previous year's overwhelming defeat for the independence movement, Pons was confident that a direct vote on New Caledonia's future status (with a lax six-month residence voting rule that favors recent Caldoche arrivals) would guarantee, once and for all, a permanent French overseas base. Chirac, in a well-publicized visit to the territory in August 1986, said his government planned to build a new naval base (which might be shared with the US) that would accommodate nuclear submarines, and that France would upgrade La Tontouta International Airport (outside Nouméa) so that nuclear-capable Jaguar bombers could land there.
With Vanuatu's assistance as a lobbying force within the Non-Aligned Movement, the FLNKS won a major political victory recently at the UN. On December 2, 1986, the UN General Assembly voted to reinscribe New Caledonia on the Decolonization Committee's list of non-self-governing territories- France had the colony removed from the list in 1947. Being on the UN list will guarantee enhanced visibility for the Kanak independence struggle, as was the case for Namibia.
FLNKS Foreign Minister Yann Uregei stated in a recent interview that reinscription was a crucial step for Kanak independence. Uregei explained that France fears the loss of not only the rich nickel deposits and expanded military bases in his country, but also its coveted nuclear test site at Moruroa Atoll (near Tahiti) in eastern Polynesia. "Our struggle for independence must be seen as intimately linked with that of our friends in the rest of French Polynesia," said Uregei. Saying that he fears the worst is yet to come, the FLNKS foreign minister added that "violence is going to spread to my country soon, as the French OAS [the Secret Army Organization, a right-wing terrorist group] settlers are quite heavily armed."
In its June communiqué, the South Pacific Forum called upon France to suspend the July referendum announced by Pons the previous year. "In the circumstances," the communiqué stated, "such a referendum would be divisive, futile and a recipe for disaster." Under obvious regional pressure. France announced that the July vote would be postponed to September 13, and stated its plan to send military reinforcements to its colony for the referendum. On May 28-29, FLNKS held its sixth congress and decided to boycott the upcoming vote. Most Pacific analysts fear that France - having belligerently exited from Indochina and Algeria - is presently setting the stage for a violent outcome in its troubled Pacific colony.
The "Strategic" Trust Territory
The area north of the equator stretching from Hawaii through the 2,100 islands of Micronesia (population 150,000) to Guam, and extending to Okinawa, Japan and South Korea, is littered with a vast array of US communications, military and nuclear facilities. This vital component of the US global nuclear network, which also extends to the Philippines, Australia and formerly to New Zealand (before it was forced out of the ANZUS defense pact) composes the Pentagon's Pacific infrastructure for its offensive maritime supremacy strategy. Most independent Pacific analysts concede that the alleged "Soviet threat" in the region is largely a fabrication, and despite some recent nominal advances, such as the fishing agreements with Kiribati and Vanuatu, the "Red scare" is a myth. Indeed, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral William Crowe, admitted the true nature of the so-called "Soviet threat" in the Pacific in an interview.
"The Soviets are in real trouble in the Pacific. They haven't been able to make much headway ideologically or politically. They have acquired some shabby allies...whose economies are either stagnant or declining...The whole Far East - not just Japan - is becoming the most active, most prosperous market in the world, and the Soviets can't even penetrate it.
When Belau mandated its unprecedented nuclear free constitution in 1979, many around the world applauded the tiny nation of 14,000 for squaring off with the Pentagon. Since 1979, the US has pressured the Belauan people into the polling booth for eight subsequent plebiscites in an attempt to overturn the nuclear ban; with more than 90 percent of Belau's economy deriving from US cash infusions, US pressure was tantamount to economic blackmail. In the most recent "demonstration election" on August 21, Belauan voters again failed to provide the 75 percent vote required to rescind their antinuclear constitution, and a pending lawsuit in the Belauan Supreme Court will determine if an August 4 vote to amend the constitution (to require only 51 percent to rescind the nuclear ban) is legal. The Court will rule on September 8.
In the wake of the vote, a constitutional crisis threatens to unleash civil strife in that nation. Having laid off two-thirds of the government employees (60 percent of Belau's labor force). President Lazarus Salii - a close US ally - has threatened to suspend the constitution in order to quell social unrest. "It looks to us as if this whole thing is part of a destabilization plan," charged Belau's High Chief Ibedul Gibbons.
It is being carried out with the tacit approval, if not with the active participation, of Washington to eliminate our nuclear-free constitution and our land rights despite the clearly expressed democratic will of the Belauan people.
Such suspicions have been compounded by circumstances surrounding the assassination of President Remeliik. After an investigation by the FBI, three men were indicted and subsequently convicted for the murder. Two of them are nephews of a popular, antinuclear candidate who was campaigning to succeed Remeliik. The resulting uproar drove him from the race, handing the election to the pro-US Salii. On July 17 the Belauan Appellate Court threw out the convictions of the three, who had always denied any involvement in the assassination. The chief prosecution witnesses, said the court, were "inherently incredible."
Viewed as a "fallback arc" (along with Guam, which bristles with nuclear weapons, Saipan, Tinian and Rota) to replace the possible loss of the vital Philippine bases beyond the 1991 expiration date of the current lease, Belau is situated a mere 500 miles from Mindanao. Prized by the Pentagon, Belau is stated for a prospective forward Trident submarine base, an air base for nuclear-laden aircraft and a guerrilla-training area amidst critical sea-lanes used to ferry Middle Eastern and Indonesian oil north to Japan.
Following scores of hydrogen and atomic bomb tests at Bikini and Enewetak, the US continues to conduct long-term human radiation studies in the Marshall Islands. Caught in the lethal path of radioactive fallout from several monstrous thermonuclear blasts in the 1950s (including the infamous "Bravo" test of March 1, 1954, that was 1,200 times the size of Hiroshima), the people of hard-hit Rongelap Atoll were evacuated by Greenpeace's Rainbow Warrior in May 1985 to a less contaminated island, where they remain today awaiting an independent radiological survey of their abandoned atoll. While aboard the Rainbow Warrior during the May 1985 evacuation, Rongelap's Senator Jeton Anjain explained to me that "We are the forgotten 'guinea pigs.' The US poisoned us, covered up their crime and now they use my people as animals for their studies."
The Treaty of Rarotonga
When the US refused to sign the protocols of the watered-down South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty (thanks to pro-American Prime Minister Robert Hawke of Australia), it was joined by France and Great Britain. France continues to test nuclear weapons - to the chagrin of the regional states - at Moruroa Atoll, and it was because of an upcoming Greenpeace demonstration with a peace flotilla led by the Rainbow Warrior in July 1985 that French agents sent the vessel to its watery grave. The US continues to test ICBM delivery systems to perfect missile warhead accuracy at Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. Known as a "catcher's mitt" for the Pentagon, Kwajalein will serve as a key site for "Star Wars" development well into the twenty-first century under the recently signed Compact of Free Association, a neo-colonial agreement to replace the still-pending UN "strategic" trust agreement of 1947.
Loopholes in the SPNFZT, referred to as the Treaty of Rarotonga, permit individual nations to decide the highly controversial nuclear ship visitation policy separately. Nonetheless, the State Department declared on February 5 that the US had rejected the treaty because it was "considered that our adherence would be used by others to argue for similar zone proposals elsewhere." When the USSR and the People's Republic of China signed the treaty's protocols, many members of Congress recognized that the US was further alienating itself from the Pacific community. At present, the House Foreign Affairs Committee is considering a resolution to force the administration to reconsider signing the treaty.
When New Zealand's Labor Party swept into office on an antinuclear platform (which was just mandated into law) in June 1984, the Nuclear-Free and Independent Pacific (NFIP) movement was given a vital step forward. Since then the Pacific nations have been moving rapidly toward the goal of banning all nuclear ships and nuclear tests, as well as prohibiting the dumping of nuclear waste (which Japan and the US have been trying to do), into their pristine oceanic environment. And this November 200 delegates of the NFIP conference plan to meet in Manila. Despite the temporary setback in Fiji, the peoples of the Pacific will continue to lead the way from the nuclear abyss toward a more sane and equitable world.
Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.