By Selwyn Manning – at the South Pacific Forum, Auckland.
Australia is poised to press ahead with its plan for an Australasian push across the South Pacific. Its Prime Minister John Howard, while attending the South Pacific Forum in Auckland, New Zealand, is determined to gain support for a grand Australian alliance spanning the Pacific Ocean expanse.
Australia's Prime Minister John Howard, Fiji's Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase, and New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark signing the non-aggression agreement in Townsville in July. (Image Scoop Media Limited).
In July Howard pressed ahead with his vision of a unified Pacific, operating under one currency [and yes he suggested the currency of choice be the Australian dollar] and overseen by what he called “pooled regional governance”.
Howard tested the waters one month ahead of this year’s South Pacific Forum, on the eve of Australia leading an armed peacemaking contingent to the Solomon Islands. At that time, Pacific leaders, and commentators too, laughed off Howard’s vision, especially the idea of a universal Australian currency, as the musings of a sun-baked tory.
Certainly the New Zealand Government, albeit behind closed doors, smirked at Howard’s currency suggestion. Australia and New Zealand may have made the Closer Economic Relations (CER) bilateral economic agreement work, but the idea of New Zealanders using cash with a kangaroo on the note to buy their winter socks is just too ‘out there’ to take seriously.
Back in July however, Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare appeared warm to Howard’s idea. Not so now, certainly after meeting with New Zealand’s Prime Minister Helen Clark early this week Somare had cast the "pooled regional governance" vision in the irritating basket.
And indeed New Zealand’s Finance Minister Michael Cullen was reported today as saying the single Pacific currency will stay off the agenda.
On foreign relations it is difficult to identify what New Zealand and Australia still have in common.
New Zealand still eyes immigration favourably, and did the right thing when those aboard the Tampa risked being virtual castaways off the coast of Australia. Australia eyes immigration, and indeed illegal immigrants as parasites and under its Immigration Minister Ruddock has advanced an immigration and illegal immigrant policy akin to pre-1939 Germany.
Over the U.S-led invasion of Iraq, Australia advanced its alliance with the Bush Administration, deploying troops to the region to fight as invaders in a war that was not sanctioned by the United Nations. New Zealand refused to take part.
Similarities on trade can been seen. And as Australia’s Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer said this week, free trade agreements across the Pacific bloc may be a catalyst that paves a way toward Howard’s notion of pooled regional governance.
These trade principle similarities however are not shared among all South Pacific nations attending the Forum. Indeed those smaller Pacific nations see this advance by Australia and New Zealand as risking their own sovereign status and to a degree dignity.
Will such nations see their labour force exploited as multinational U.S. companies have exploited working people in Indonesia and the Asian tiger economies? Will the high price, added value products from Australia and New Zealand be dumped on Pacific Islands retail shelves, driving up the cost of living and the ideas of high cost materialism within its peoples? Will FTAs be honoured by Australia and New Zealand should their respective nation’s interests be challenged?
These are all questions demanding answers at this South Pacific Forum in Auckland.
So why is Howard advancing the pooled regional governance idea?
Regional security, stability, the means toward representing a major combined Oceanic Pact to promote identity and development, are all likely answers.
But it must be viewed within the context of geopolitical moves by the world’s dominating nations and their medium term aspirations.
Officially the United States Embassy in Wellington says: “The United States will be participating in the 34th Pacific Islands Forum as a Dialogue Partner. Deputy Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Matthew P. Daley will head the delegation. The U.S. will be holding bi-lateral meetings with a number of State representatives (New Zealand, Fiji, RMI, Tonga, Tuvalu, Australia, etc.) U.S. participation is a reflection of our commitment to the Pacific and our interest in how the Forum nations are dealing with issues of regional concern.”
Clearly, in the wake of the September 11 attacks, the United States moved to tidy up on outward security loose ends, to restrict illegal movement of money through nations like Nauru in the South Pacific. Money laundering via Nauru was believed to be big business indeed. For example, former Soviet bloc nations and their criminal organisations are believed to have passed multi-million dollar sums through the Nauru government’s money filter, new notes were issued, the currencies exited the country squeaky clean and fresh. From the United States’ viewpoint, activities such as these enable ‘terrorists’ to transfer large sums of money into the hands of illegal arms traders to acquire weapons and the means to strike its peoples.
Certainly gun running in the Pacific is a thriving enterprise. Not surprisingly when one considers private armies like Sandlines and all its various subsidiaries like Executive Outcomes have been operating from the shadows of Pacific nations for decades, in recent times being most conspicuous in Papua New Guinea providing military services to its former prime minister, Sir Julius Chan.
Sandlines and its subsidiaries provided military styled security for gold exploitation firms, drew mercenary recruits from the SAS ranks of the Australian and also New Zealand armed forces, and set up arms logistics, some say it all boils down to illegal movement of arms in a region where security is fragile.
The United States operatives know all of this and more.
The U.S. is also short on military bases in the region. Only this week a U.S. trade official massaged the U.S. warship debate in New Zealand, suggesting New Zealand’s anti-nuclear laws that prevent United States warships from entering New Zealand’s waters was an “artefact” of a long gone time.
The United States covets the South Pacific for its position. From here it gains ready access to the Indian Ocean, safe ports for its military to rest and recreate, and a position on the global grid that currently does not have a surrogate Stars and Stripes flag flying.
This week in Canberra U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage backed Howard’s pooled regional governance idea, as "recognition of a problem that concerns us all".
But as has been correctly reported this week in the New Zealand Herald, many South Pacific Forum member nations “have a bone to pick with the U.S.”.
The daily newspaper cited the closure of Johnson Atoll airfield, once used as “a safety airfield for flights across the Pacific” has angered many. The United States, and its quasi cobba Australia just are not trusted.
On the eve of Australian, New Zealand and Fijian armed forces entering the Solomon Islands as peacemakers, diplomats drafted a multinational non-aggression agreement and was hastily signed inside Townsville Air Force Base. There, seven Pacific nation leaders, including John Howard, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Helen Clark, and Fiji’s Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase and four others representing Samoa, Tonga, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea signed in agreement that neither singularly or in partnership would the nations turn guns on each other and invade.
The move was a documented assurance to the people of the Solomons and indeed its close neighbours that Australia’s part in the U.S-led invasion of Iraq was not to be repeated in these parts.
The document is testament to the unease with which the smaller Pacific nations view Australia in particular.
So what is likely to become of this “pooled regional governance” vision of John Howard’s? Small measures, by degrees, free trade agreements will be pressed, regional co-operation moves such as the announced Pacific regional police training college in Fiji will be advanced. And perhaps, in time, a United Economies of The Pacific will be formed.
But gauging on the reception
French President Chirac received in the Pacific this month,
the flags flying will be more European Union leaning than
eastward to the USA. And perhaps humanitarianism as opposed
to cold trade calculus will, as Amnesty International
suggested today, provide answers to the Pacific's challenge.