A combination of colonial and post-colonial paternalism by Western industrialized countries, a rediscovery of a glorious past, and the collapse of American unipolar dominance is leading the Polynesian region of the Pacific to a future political and economic union. The Polynesian Leaders Group (PLG) is making itself felt politically and diplomatically in the Asia-Pacific region.
The PLG, meeting at its 8th summit in Tuvalu in June 2018, admitted three new members – Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Hawai’I, and New Zealand, or, as it is known in the Maori language, Aotearoa. These potential members of a future Polynesian Union joined Samoa, American Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu, the Cook Islands, Niue, French Polynesia, Tokelau, and Wallis and Futuna in the PLG.
In the latter half of the 19th century, four Polynesian kings, wary of encroaching Western imperialist moves into the South Pacific, attempted to launch an alliance of Polynesian kingdoms to stand up to the European and American colonialist powers. The chief proponents of the alliance were King Pomare V of Tahiti, King Kamehameha V of Hawaii, King Malietoa Laupepa of Samoa, and King George Tupou II of Tonga.
The PLG leaders meeting in Tuvalu left open the possibility of other Polynesian states joining their alliance. These could include Norfolk Island, which saw its self-governing status unilaterally abolished by Australia in 2016; Pitcairn Islands, an overseas territory of the United Kingdom; Johnston Atoll, Kingman Reef, Palmyra Atoll, Howland, Jarvis, and Baker islands, unincorporated territories of the United States, and Rotuma, a dependency of Fiji.
Polynesian-inhabited islands of majority Melanesian and Micronesian Pacific states could also be invited to join a Polynesian Union. These include Anuta, a densely-populated island of 300 in the Solomon Islands; Bellona, Ontong Java, Pileni, Sikaiana, Tikopia, and Rennell islands in the Solomons; Mele and Emae islands in Vanuatu; Nukumanu and Takuu in Papua New Guinea; and Kapingamarangi and Nukuoro in the Federated States of Micronesia.
The Polynesian people are growing weary of being treated as second- and third-class citizens on their own ancestral islands. They are growing more concerned about their collective future as they witness island after island being swallowed up by rising sea levels brought about by global climate change. Their ability to govern themselves is stymied by unfair political relationships with metropolitan powers hammered out by colonial overseers. Niue and the Cook Islands are subject to “associated state” status with New Zealand. Micronesia has a “Compact of Free Association” with the United States. French Polynesia and Wallis and Futuna are territories of France. Norfolk Island has been administratively and politically absorbed into the Australian state of New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory.
In extending an open invitation to join the Polynesian Leaders Group, Prime Minister Enele Sosene Sopoaga of Tuvalu, said, “In accordance with the MOU [memorandum of understanding] which we signed, we welcome other Polynesian communities in other places and locations to join the PLG as brothers.”
In a recent interview with the Associated Press, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said that an effort for New Zealand to become a republic and sever its ties with the British monarch, who remains New Zealand’s head of state, is not a current priority. Recognizing past injustices against the Polynesian Maori people, the original inhabitants of New Zealand, Ardern said redressing the wrongs committed against the Maori if of a greater priority to her government than seeking republic status.
Ardern could start to redress the wrongs committed by New Zealand against Polynesians by instructing her father, Ross Ardern, the present Administrator of Tokelau and past High Commissioner to Niue, to begin the process of full decolonization of these territories with the goal of full membership in the United Nations.
New Zealand has warned the Cook Islands that if it seeks UN membership, Cook Islanders will lose their New Zealand citizenship. The Cook Islands government has responded to the threat by presenting a proposal for Cook Islanders to have dual status – both Cook Islands and New Zealand citizenship. Niue has also sought full membership in the UN and dual Niuean-New Zealand citizenship. The requests from the Cook Islands and Niue have fallen on deaf ears. That may change of New Zealand or Aotearoa comes to terms with its Maori and Polynesian character.
In a 2007 referendum, Tokelau’s desire for associated status with New Zealand failed by 16 votes. A two-thirds vote was required for Tokelau to achieve the same self-government status as the Cook Islands and Niue, however the bid failed with 64.4, just short of two-thirds of the electorate, voting yes. Had the measure passed, Tokelau would likely be striving for UN membership, along with its sister Polynesian states of the Cook Islands and Niue.
In return for signing Compacts of Free Association (COFAs) with the United States, three former UN Trust Territories in Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, and Palau, agreed to allow the United States to maintain military bases on their territory in return for unfettered rights to live and work in the United States, as well as cash handouts in the form of economic assistance. So far, Washington has only exercised its military base option in the Marshall Islands, where it maintains the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site in Kwajalein Atoll. With the Donald Trump administration ratcheting up tensions with China, insisting the Pacific is an “American lake,” the other Micronesian states may see new US military bases.
If Micronesia opted to join a Polynesian-Micronesian Union of states, the semi-colonized Federated States of Micronesia, consisting of Pohnpei, Chuuk, Yap, and Kosrae; the US territories of Guahan (Guam) and Northern Marianas; the semi-colonized Republic of Palau; the Republic of Nauru, and the Republic of Marshall Islands could find political and economic power as part of a trans-Pacific entity.
The Melanesian states of Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Solomon Islands, and Kanaky New Caledonia have formed the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG), a nascent political and economic union that may, eventually, include West Papua, currently occupied by Indonesia; the Republic of Timor-Leste, and East Nusa Tenggara and the South and North Moluccas, currently a part of Indonesia; and Bougainville, if it decides to opt in a 2019 referendum on independence from Papua New Guinea.
Western colonialists and neo-colonialists have managed to stifle trans-Pacific unity by creating artificial barriers to cooperation and unity between island peoples. One egregious example is the regime of requiring travel permits and visas for visits between Samoa, an independent nation, and American Samoa, a US territory whose residents do not enjoy full US citizenship unless one of their parents is a US citizen. Relations between Samoans living in two different jurisdictions are relegated by bureaucrats in far-away Washington, DC and by government officials in Samoa, a former New Zealand territory, but where the government is usually influenced by dictates from New Zealand.
Across the Pacific and Polynesia, the heavy-handed presence of colonial and neo-colonial powers is reflected in a paucity of approved direct air routes between islands, visa requirements, availability of Internet connections and a variety of satellite-transmitted television news channels (not merely Fox News, CNN, or the BBC), attempting to freeze out Chinese economic development, and lack of overall free trade between islands. The Polynesian Leaders Group is a step in the direction of unity for Pacific peoples. The only barrier to it and the Melanesian Spearhead Group is interference from the politico-military viceroys in Canberra, Wellington, Washington, London, and Paris.