Friday, June 07, 2013

The new battle for the Pacific

A lot of Westerners see the Pacific as a region isolated and insulated from the major dramas of our era. It can be argued, though, that the Pacific is a frontline in one of the most important conflicts of the twenty-first century. The Pacific lies midway between the United States and China, the world’s increasingly antagonistic superpowers. Pacific nations like Papua New Guinea and Kanaky sit on huge reserves of coveted minerals, and isolated islands like Guam, Wake, and Tuitila are home to airports and naval bases that allow armed forces to move between the Americas and Asia.
In the decades since World War Two the United States has dominated the Pacific. The Americans have been so confident of their hegemony in the region that they have often been content to let their close but subordinate partners Australia and New Zealand take responsibility for imposing their will there. In Tonga and a number of other South Pacific nations, the United States does not even bother to operate an embassy, and the Aussies and Kiwis are responsible for organising joint exercises with local armies and pressuring local governments into adopting the sort of neo-liberal economic policies that will benefit big Western corporations.
Over the past decade, though, China has mounted a challenge to the influence the US and its allies exert over the Pacific. China has made huge loans to a series of impoverished Pacific nations, befriended Fiji after its government was scorned by Australia and New Zealand, encouraged its citizens to set up businesses in places like Vanuatu, the Solomons and Tonga, and sent warships to visit a number of Pacific ports. Chinese warships are welcome in Tonga, much to the discomfort of the Western powers. Tonga’s debt to China now stands at one hundred and twenty million dollars, and nobody is quite sure how such a sum can ever be repaid. 
In the past, many small Pacific states had to accept the economic and military policies laid down in Washington, Canberra, and Wellington, or face losing access to aid funds and security; now they can scorn the West and turn to China for help, or attempt to play the superpowers against each other. Pacific capitals teem with diplomats, advisors and aid workers, as China and the West compete for influence. Here in Nuku’alofa, the capital of the little Kingdom of Tonga, convoys of white SUVs with diplomatic numberplates chase chickens and pigs off the roads, and Chinese and Australian money men sit talking with corpulent nobles over stacks of documents and money in air-conditioned cafes. 
Aware of the need to present a united front against the new superpower, Australia and New Zealand have drawn much closer to France over the past several years. In the 1980s, Australasian governments regularly denounced France for clinging to its colonies in the Pacific; today Kiwi and Aussies diplomats bloc with the French imperialists to try to keep the issue off the agenda of the United Nations. Last week a French naval vessel docked at Nuku’alofa; its crew were welcomed by Australian naval officers who have based themselves in the city. Uniformed Aussie, Kiwi, American and French troops are a common sight in Nuku’alofa’s bars and cafes. 

The US-led bloc and China are competing for the Pacific using cultural as well as economic and diplomatic weapons. China has gone to some trouble to make sure that CCTV, its international English-language television news channel, is broadcast free to air in Tonga. An English-language Chinese radio station also broadcasts continually. Chinese educationalists have flown to Tonga and lobbied for the inclusion of Mandarin in the curricula of primary and secondary schools.  Scholarships make sure that some of Tonga’s best young students head overseas to Chinese universities.
The US-led bloc of Pacific powers isn’t taking China’s push for cultural hegemony lying down. Residents of Nuku’alofa and the rest of Tongatapu can now listen to the ABC, Australia's public radio station.
It is instructive to compare the emphases and lacunae of the missionary arms of the Chinese and Australian media.

The Chinese report conscientiously on the Middle East, and are happy to note the messes that America and its allies have made in Afghanistan and Iraq. CCTV’s talking heads become very defensive, though, when they turn their attention to Xinjiang, where most of China’s oppressed Muslim population lives, and Tibet, where state-sponsored migration is making the indigenous population a minority. The riots and assassinations which periodically disturb Xinjiang are, we are told, the work of a handful of crazed terrorists, who have no support amongst the general population. Tibetans are a jolly rustic people, who like nothing better than serving ox meat soup to wealthy Han Chinese customers at newly-established five star resorts on the moonscape plateaux which surround Lhasa. 
Australia’s national radio station has its own enthusiasms and oversights. In an essay published in the New Zealand Journal of History back in 2000, Kerry Howe argued that Australians had a cliché-ridden and contradictory view of the Pacific. For Aussies the word ‘Pacific’ conjured up images of friendly Polynesians strumming guitars under coconut trees, but also of the ‘dark malarial jungles' of Melanesia, where savages with spears, Japanese with rifles, and pythons with poisoned fangs waited to strike. If the ‘brown’ Pacific of Polynesian was a paradise populated by noble savages, then the ‘black’ Pacific of Melanesia was a violent labyrinth. Howe’s essay affirms the durability of the sort of stereotypes that came to the Pacific with the likes of Bougainville and Bligh more than two centuries ago.

Far too much of the material on ABC’s regular Pacific Beat news programme is distorted by myths about noble brown savages and ignoble black savages.  Geraldine Coutts, a host of the Pacific Beat, often makes these prejudices alarmingly clear.

Recently Coutts called Oscar Temaru, the long-serving and widely respected leader of ‘French’ Polynesia’s pro-independence movement, to get his response to the United Nation’s historic decision to place his homeland on its list of territories due for decolonisation. When Temaru tried to explain the background to the decision, by describing France’s history of exploding bombs in the Pacific and locking up or ‘disappearing’ nationalist journalists, Coutts cut him short by insisting that "we already know" this history. Coutts ridiculed the UN’s decision, suggesting that it was merely a matter of symbolism, and asked, in an appallingly patronising voice, whether Temaru thought that the Pacific people under French rule understood what decolonisation might mean for them. What, after all, could a simple-minded brown chap smiling and strumming his guitar under a coconut tree possibly now about politics?
If Coutts treats Polynesians as noble savages, then she sometimes gives Melanesians the role of black barbarians. In recent months ABC radio has repeatedly reported on the high crime rate in Papua New Guinea, and in particular on the mob killings of suspected sorcerers in the country's highlands. Too often, the ABC’s coverage of this important issue has been contaminated by an unexamined belief in the inherent savagery of traditional New Guinean society.
Several scholars have put forward complex, historically grounded, materialist explanations of Papua New Guinea’s epidemic of violence. These scholars link tragedies like the sorcery slayings to shortages of land in the Papua New Guinea hill districts and the failure of the capitalist sector of the country’s economy to absorb a generation of young men. Such subtlety seems lost on Coutts, who last week ran a story on the growth of Islam in Papua New Guinea since 9/11.

Scott Flower, an Australian academic who has recorded a five hundred percent rise in Papuan converts to Islam since the attacks on the Twin Towers, told Coutts that before 9/11 many of the people living in remote parts of Papua New Guinea had not known there was any foreign religious alternative to Christianity. The publicity Islam received after 9/11 made them curious, and led them to the mosques that have existed in their country since the 1980s. For Coutts, though, such an explanation seemed inadequate. Explaining that “Papua New Guinea is a very violent country”, she asked whether its people might have become Muslims because they were impressed by Osama bin Laden’s attacks on America. What else could you expect, Coutts seemed to imply, from a bunch of savages? Flower hurriedly dismissed Coutts' enquiries.
Australia may be a combatant in a new battle for the Pacific, but some of its footsoldiers are using very old clichés.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tonga needs more time to allow its two-year-old democracy to flourish, HM King Tupou VI told the Tonga Legislative Assembly in a message on June 7.

The king was not present at Friday's "soft closing" of the recent session that began in 2012, and his speech was read by Prince Tu'ipelehake.

The king also praised the speedy passing by parliament of Bills during a special parliamentary session in March, which he attributed to the commitment of the 26-members parliament to address the concern of the people.

The king told parliament that an amendment to the Tongan Constitution to enable members to table a motion for a Vote of No Confidence in the Prime Minister and his government was a special privilege to test the new democratic system. However, he stressed that like all new privileges, there was a need for maintenance and care, with long-term commitment to address the welfare of the Tongan people.

One of the five Bills that were passed in March was a Bill for the Pacific Games Act 2013. Tonga will host the 2019 South Pacific Games and the king believed that it would encourage people in Tonga to try and keep fit and to become more health conscious.

With regards to the global financial crisis he said that there were signs that the Tongan economy is recovering, with a slight increase in the flow of remittances and income from tourism.

However the king envisaged that economic recovery in Tonga could be accelerated by improvement in areas that included:
- the running of private businesses;
- introduction of an appropriate tax system;
- establishment of sustainable energy sources;
- up-grading the public services;
- raising the quality and the quantity of public constructions;
- improve the standard of public transport;
- improve the banking system.

The King believed that if his proposals could be introduced, the Tongan economy could be further improved despite Tonga's limited natural resources.

Prince Tu'ipelehake was accompanied to the soft closing of parliament by Prince Tungi and Lord Luani.

New session

King Tupou IV will officially open the new 2013-14 Session of the Tongan Parliament this week on 13 June.

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