Friday, September 02, 2005

More on Tonga

There's a short report on the settlement of the Tongan civil servants' strike here.

Most of the mainstream media in New Zealand seemed to see the strike as some sort of curious little local incident, unrelated to any important issue facing New Zealanders, let alone people living outside the South Pacific. Much of the coverage that I saw implied that the dispute would never have arisen, if only the silly old King of Tonga had come to his senses and diverted the money going to fund the decadent lifestyles of his family members toward better causes. A few less cream pies and tins of caviar for the King, and a few less parties and penthouse Sydney and Auckland apartments for his sons, and the dispute could be easily ironed out, some of the more jocular reports seemed to suggest.

Such a view ignores the profound influence on Tonga of international capital, and its representatives in the governments of Australia and New Zealand, the International Monetary Fund, and the government of the United States. If we want to understand why the strike lasted so long, and was fought so bitterly, we must look not at the greed and recalcitrance of the King, but at the shadow of imperialism that hangs over Tonga. The fact is that, whatever the King's atitude was toward the strikers, the ability of his government to accede to their demands was and will remain severely limited by outside control of the Tongan economy.

Australia used this year's Pacific leaders forum to insist that future economic aid to small island states like Tonga would be tied to the 'reform' of these countries' economies. In neo-liberal speak, 'reform' invariably means the sort of deep cuts to state spending and a shrinking of the state that brought the Solomon Islands to its knees last year, and is currently laying waste to Papua New Guinea's economy. The attempts of the Howard government to force IMF 'reforms' on countries like Tonga are entirely consistent with its role as the Deputy Sheriff of US imperialism in the South Pacific. US foreign policy demands the use of the IMF and the World Bank to force open markets in the developing world for Western consumer goods, while at the same time cutting the price of raw materials extracted from the developing world, and the price of labour bought there by Western multinational companies. Where necessary, this process of 'globalisation' can be enforced and protected by the armed forces of the US or US allies.

Of course, the demands of the Australian government and the IMF can only collide head-on with the demands of workers in Tonga. The long-overdue pay increases strikers were demanding threaten to blow out a budget imperialism is pushing Tonga to trim. The Australian government will not be happy about the strikers winning their demands and forcing Tonga to set a bad example.

I think this is an issue which is directly relevant to the US's War of Terror, because the aggressive unilateralism in pursuit of US interests which has marked the war has already been felt in the Pacific region, in the form of the Australian-led and US-initiated military intervention in the Solomons. This intervention was justified by a need to 'restore order' to the Solomons, but order had only broken down because of the West's sabotage of the country's economy - under IMF 'reforms' imposed by Austalia and New Zealand, a third of public sector workers had lost their jobs, with predictable consequences. The real reason for the intervention was to set an example for the Pacific, and to keep at bay US rival France, which had been making overtures to the Solomons government. Like its patron the United States, Australia has announced that it reserves the right to invade its neighbours 'pre-emptively', if it feels that its security is threatened. 'Security', of course, is understood in economic as much as military terms. It is not at all difficult to imagine the crisis that still threatens to develop in Tonga being resolved by a military intervention initiated by the US and Australia, and including New Zealand forces.

For more on all of this, have a look at the World Socialist Website's excellent analysis of the new US-Australian 'sphere of influence' in the Pacific. The WSWS's article on the strike in Tonga has been dated somewhat by events, but is still well worth checking out.


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