There are no more suitable people on earth to be guardians of the world’s largest ocean than those for whom it has been home for generations (Hau’ofa, 1994)
Epeli Hau’ofa’s highly influential essay, Our Sea of Islands, asserts that the peoples of Oceania, are not passive figures on the regional and world stage as they are so commonly depicted. Rather, he considers Oceanic peoples to be guardians that play a vital and powerful role in the environmental protection of the region’s Ocean resources. He argues this by dismantling the idea that the region is a collection of isolated “islands in the far sea”; a perspective created by European explorers who upon making contact with peoples upon islands, perceived them to be confined to small tracts of land defined by imprisoning shorelines. For Hau’ofa, this conception of the Pacific diminishes the territorial breadth of the regions people who have a history of trans-ocean navigation, communication, and exchange. He sees the Pacific as “a sea of islands” as this more accurately includes the ocean in the social, cultural, environmental and cosmological bounds of its people. Similarly, he argues the region should be called “Oceania” rather than the Pacific to further reflect the strong relationship Oceanic people have with the water around them. Hau’ofa’s essay convincingly puts the Ocean and the responsibility of its protection in the domain of the region’s people, but it does more than this. His essay emphasizes the continuing relationship that Oceanic people still have with the ocean and each other that gives them power and agency to collectively pursue this goal. They are guardians of the ocean.
The nations and people of Oceania however are not the only powers present in the region. The complex of foreign power in the region certainly has influence on how Oceanic peoples are able to achieve their goals. In brief, Oceania has a history of colonial occupation and administration by European powers predominantly by the British and French. Most Oceanic nations under British occupation transitioned to independence in the 1960s and 1970s. Each of these nations now are able to pursue self-determination while remaining in the commonwealth. Despite this approach by the British, most French colonies such as New Caledonia and French Polynesia still remain under French rule. The region has also had significant American influence in the 20th century during the World Wars and the Cold War. The region held a significant strategic position for the Americans as they held and continue to hold military bases in Guam, the Marshall Islands, Hawaii, and peripherally the Philippines. During the 20th century, American militaristic presence in the region was only temporarily challenged by the Japanese in the Second World War. Since the end of the Cold War, Oceania has decreased in strategic importance to the United States, and they have subsequently loosened their influence in the region. In the decline of European and American influence, much of the influence in the region has been from Australia and New Zealand, affluent former colonies that are actively engaged in strengthening political/governance institutions by providing conditional aid. Some of these island nations, such as the Cook Islands are in free political association with New Zealand. With such a diverse array of political influence, Oceanic nations operate in a geopolitical complex that influences the pursuit overarching regional goals. This has only been made more complicated by the entrance of new regional powers, predominately from China and South East Asian nations.
This article contextualizes the changing geopolitical complex occurring in Oceania with the entrance of Asian power and influence. It analyses the increased importance of Oceania for Asian countries, and specifically how the increased presence of aid and Asian fishing vessels in the region is challenging the predominately western geopolitical complex in the region. This article ends with notes on how Oceanic nations and people perceive the Ocean, and their role in it as guardians, in this changing geopolitical complex. Most importantly I ask, what is the state of Hau’ofa’s Oceanic guardian narrative in this over-saturation of foreign influence?
New Kid on the Block: The Emerging Presence of China in Oceania and Western Response
The emerging Chinese influence in Oceania has most visibly been signaled by the erection of billboards to mark the arrival diplomatic visits. This billboard was erected for Xi Jinping’s visit to Fiji in 2014, as were many others. Chinese style buildings such as hospitals, schools, roads, bridges, and ports also now materially manifest their presence. It is the very visual presence of Chinese influence in Oceania that is causing casual commentators to compare Oceania’s turn to Asia a betrayal on the west, and western power’s jealousy and scramble to win Oceania back as desperate and undignified. It is portrayed as something akin to a lover’s quarrel.
For Oceanic nations however the welcoming of new foreign powers into diplomatic relations can not be narrowed down to a petty and unprompted betrayal. As noted, European and American influence in the region has long been in decline. Meanwhile, the recent history of the region’s most important partner, Australia, has been characterized as being increasingly ingenuine and infrequent. In particular the Griffith institute have detailed in a number of their “state of the neighborhood” reports that there has been a lack of “listening” on the part of Australia (Cain, 2019). Pacific leaders have been particularly vocal about the Australian government not addressing the financial and social challenges that labor migrants face upon entering Australia, as well as the blatant disregard Australian politicians have towards their pleas for action on climate change. As the Griffith Institute argues, Australia’s “Pacific Step-Up” Plan was conceived to address these issues by providing more honest avenues and methods of communication. This has come in the form of a greater number of ministerial visits to the region (Cain, 2019). Oceanic leaders however are also frustrated that Australian based aid funding is also primarily focused on building strong governance in the region while ignoring other needs. Chinese aid on the other hand is allocated to a much more diverse array of commercial projects (Brant, 2013). In the latest budget (2019-2020) Australia is set to increase its aid budget in the region from being consistently in the $900 million (AUS) to $1.1 billion range (AUS) over the last decade, to $1.4 Billion (AUS). This increase in aid funding does not necessarily address Oceanic leader’s frustrations concerning what such aid is direct to, but it is designed to signal to Oceanic nations their renewed commitment to the region.
This increase in aid is much more than a desperate plea by Australia to get Oceania’s attention back. Increases in aid by Australia, as well as similar renewed interest by the EU, USA, and Japan, is to mitigate China’s increasing strategic hold in the region. In particular China’s presence in the region is linked to security fears that if made a reality would have severe consequences. One of these fears is that the Chinese may be able to leverage Oceanic nations indebted to them into allowing the construction of Chinese military bases. Others suggest that China has devised a strategy of emigration into the region to create an “arc of instability”(Shie, 2007; Windy, 2005). It is argued that the Chinese could achieve these goals through their aid program in a few ways. Chinese aid in the form of loans have had vaguely defined repayment schedules, with some ultimately being “forgiven” over the last decade. This seemingly flexible repayment model has lead some island nations to take unsustainable concessional loans with the hopes of later forgiveness (Brant, 2013). Such loans may not be forgiven in the future and indeed could be used as leverage by the Chinese to obtain concessions to construct military bases (this very process may already be occurring in Vanuatu). Infrastructure loans also stipulate that a Chinese company must be hired to undertake the work. There are questions especially in Papua New Guinea that the government is bending immigration rules for Chinese migrant workers (Brant, 2013). Western powers are now scrambling to mitigate the potential of this worst case scenario, meanwhile Oceanic nations seem to be taking advantage of the increased competition.
For those partial to the lover’s quarrel metaphor, this worst case scenario seems a bit farfetched, and maybe it is. An alternative and compelling argument concerning Chinese motives in the region is that their aid strategy is linked to acquiring numerous types of resources, fish among them, for its burgeoning population. Its aid program is primarily run through the Chinese Ministry of Commerce linked to a broader economic strategy of trade in the region (Brant, 2013). A large proportion of aid is directed towards transportation, communication and electricity infrastructure projects that make resource extraction and access possible. Infrastructure projects that allow resources to be more easily extracted, open the way for Chinese state run enterprises, to operate, extract, and export such resources back to China (Brant, 2013). Such resource focused strategies however, can still be pursued in an insidious manner that is detrimental to Oceanic nations. Chinese aid in other parts of the world, in particular Africa, require natural resources to back loans and lines of credit for African countries to conduct infrastructure projects. For China, this guarantees the extraction of resources from these countries regardless of the success or failure of such infrastructural projects. This strategy known as the “Angola Mode” has not yet been employed in Oceania but looking at Chinese involvement globally has relevance in interpreting how the acquisition of resources may be pursued in Oceania in the future (Brant, 2013). The strategy to acquire large quantities of resources, even through insidious methods is relatively transparent in the global diplomatic community, as New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully stated in 2011:
China is simply doing in our neighborhood what it is doing in every neighborhood around the globe: undertaking a level of engagement designed to secure access to resources on a scale that will meet its future needs, and establishing a presence through which it can make its other interests clear… Minerals, timber and fish are all commodities that the Pacific is able to trade, and that China wants to buy (McCully, 2011; cited in Brant, 2013)
More skeptical and critical observers, are further weary of this resource based strategy. This is because what is also hinted at McCully’s statement here is that there are potential inconspicuous synergies between China’s resource focused aid strategies and a more militaristic or sovereignty challenging motivations. Conditional aid for infrastructural and resource based projects could certainly be used in leveraging strategies. The increased presence of Chinese migrants working on infrastructural and resource based projects also can be used to sow dissent. But what is most important, is that the resource based aid strategy inconspicuously signaled to the world, could actually be a well crafted veil that aligns with international norms in a way that throws the international community off their scent of greater regional ambitions (Brant, 2013). This veiled strategy could be used across a wide array of resource sectors. However, with regards to ocean resources and governance, Chinese fishing operations and vessels may be used to acquire more direct Oceanic control. This will be covered in more detail further on.
Western powers are certainly aware of this potential game, but this veil may provide just enough cover for the actualization of this plan. Either that, or western powers are willing to play an expensive game that China never intended to play. Regardless, even if resource directed aid strategies are not used for acquiring more direct forms of control in the region, the way in which China extracts resources from the region can still undermine oceanic sovereignty in the region in much different ways. There are suggestions that China and other South East Asian nations are undermining Oceanic nation’s regional sovereignty by conducting Illegal Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing in the region in their attempt to acquire greater food security (Pauly et al, 2014; Song et al, 2019). In these illegal fishing operations, Oceanic nation’s economic and territorial rights are similarly disregarded.
What is important to note is that regardless of Chinese motives, their activities are threatening western interests in the region. Western nations are responding to this activity through their own aid policies, especially in the domain of maritime security. This is justified as protecting Oceanic nation’s self-determinism but can equally be considered to represent western security and economic interests over regional self-autonomy in ways that may not be too dissimilar to China’s potential motives (Song et al, 2019).
Secure Seas and Fisheries
Fishing in Oceania by Chinese fishermen in the region is by no means a new development. Historically, Chinese fishermen have been able to fish in the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of Oceanic nations with permits. Three Chinese state owned enterprises (SOEs) have operated in Oceania including; The China National Fishery Corporation, Shanghai Fisheries General Corporation, and Guangdong Guangyuan Fishery group. The Chinese National Fishery Corporation in particular has operated in Oceania since the late 1980s, and currently has a resident office in Lami, Fiji. At the time of a 2005 Forum Fisheries Agency report, it was the largest fishing company in the world while operating in Oceans across the globe, not only in Oceania (McCoy and Gillet, 2005).
The state owned element of Chinese fisheries and the specific funding of port infrastructures by the Chinese government complicates their presence in the region. For western powers, it opens up the opportunity for fishing practices to be parlayed into a greater strategic goal as suggested by McCully’s assessment of their involvement in the region (Brant, 2013). Beijing has funded a number of port projects over the last decade, most recently Matautu port in Samoa. These ports provide the infrastructure for a greater number of Chinese fishing vessels to operate out of them. More ports and more Chinese SOE fishing vessels in Oceania stoke western fears based on their other maritime strategies elsewhere in the world. In particular China, among other South East Asian nations, have militarized fishing vessels in the South China Sea as a means to protect their national territorial interests. Such militarized fishing vessels have been used to protect contested spaces in the South China Sea such as the Paracel and Spratly Islands . It is debated whether the militarization of fishing vessels in the South China Sea is related to a plan of securing strategic goals, or food security (Zhang, 2016). However, regardless of the overarching goals of this contest in the South China Sea, such activity does involve staking nationalistic claims to the sovereign territories over other nations. The implementation of this strategy in Oceania takes a stretch of the imagination as the South China Sea and Oceania are certainly not the same geopolitically. However, there has been some activity in Oceania that does give some cause for concern along these lines. Interestingly this has not come from China specifically, but from Vietnam.
Since 2015 large fleets of fishing boats from Vietnam have conducted illegal fishing activities in the territories of Palau, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and other island nations (Song et al, 2019). They are known as “blue boats” due to their distinguished colour shown below. Their primary goal has been to collect high-value species such as sea-cucumbers which are a delicacy in many South East Asian nations. Their increased presence in the EEZs of Oceanic Island nations can be directly attributed to the increasingly contested space of the South China Sea. The exodus of Vietnamese fishing vessels to oceanic waters has also been encouraged by the Vietnamese government who have restricted inshore fishing in the South China Sea where sea cucumbers are found (Song et al, 2019). The Vietnamese government has also provided subsidies for the construction of distant water fishing vessels (Song et al, 2019). Such state encouraged IUU fishing activity by Vietnamese fishermen, is contesting the sovereignty of Oceanic actors to control and regulate their oceans for their own interests. Furthermore, their activities are contesting Oceanic sovereignty in a way that not only undermines it, but flat out ignores it. This is not too dissimilar to the geopolitical complex in the South China Sea in which nations are ignoring all other nations’ relevant historic activities in the region in preference for their own exclusive rights. Could Oceania become an extension of how the South China Seas is engaged with? Currently this is hard to create odds for. It would require greater levels of transnational competition than what is currently seen. However, based on Chinese aggressive policy that ignores other nation’s territory’s sovereignty in the South China Sea just like Vietnam, and for many of the same reasons as Vietnam, there are fears that a Chinese version of “Blue Boats” may soon appear in Oceania. If that happens all bets are off.
For now these are concerns that stop short at being a collection of Vietnamese boats that need to be monitored and regulated. This is not a activity that Chinese fishing vessels are currently involved in. For the time being, Chinese fishing vessels with permits to fish in Oceania are at least trying to appear to operate under the laws and regulations that govern Oceanic nation’s territorial claims of the Ocean. Yet, there are still suggestions that Chinese fishing vessels are undermining Oceanic sovereignty in different ways right now through their own IUU fishing activities. The Chinese government have recorded that their distant water catches across the globe were equivalent to 1.1 million tonnes a year (Pauly et al, 2014). Yet, A recent scholarly article contested this statistic and estimated this catch to be more than quadruple this official statistic at 4.6 million tonnes a year (Pauly et al, 2014). More conservative estimates by the Food and Agricultural organization of the UN estimate Chinese distant-water fishing vessel catch at 2.42 million tonnes a year which is still double the official Chinese records (Pauly et al, 2014). There are no publicly available databases that specify the number of licenses and agreements between China and the countries in which Chinese fishing vessels operate, but the discrepancy between distant water catch numbers indicates the presence of Illegal fishing by China that can hardly be accounted for by fishing outside of EEZs. Plain and simple, Chinese fishermen are over-harvesting the world’s Oceans beyond what the Chinese government is reporting. Oceania only makes up a portion of these statistics mentioned, but the Forum Fisheries Agency of Oceania has noted that the lack of transparency in fishing agreements and the high mobility of fishermen, enables under-reporting to be possible if not probable in the region (McCoy and Gillet, 2005). While Chinese fishing operations do not blatantly ignore Oceanic nation’s sovereignty like “Blue Boats”, as they do at least weakly attempt to remain under the guise of Oceanic governance, they certainly do undermine Oceanic sovereignty through their subversive fishing operations. The fact that these fishermen operate under the control of Chinese state owned enterprises also means that these activities cannot so easily be explained away as the actions of independent rouge fishermen.
The increased prevalence of IUU fishing activity in Oceania has been met with large aid increases by Australia to maritime security agencies. Australian funding to the Forum Fishing Agency and the Maritime Security Program as part of their “Pacific Step-Up” plan, can only be interpreted as responses to the increased prevalence of IUU activities (Song et al, 2019). Such funding, as well as logistical support by New Zealand, France, and the USA, has allowed operations to locate and apprehend blue boats to take place. For instance, “Operation Rai Balang” led by the Forum Fishing Agency’s Fisheries Surveillance Center is an annual 10-day maritime surveillance operation that is directed towards expelling blue boats and other IUU activities from the region. These operations are supported by public service campaigns that incorporate local populations into monitoring activities as seen below (Song et al, 2019). These operations are conducted in association with Oceanic nations involved and do restore their greater sovereignty in the region. However, it cannot be understated that these maritime security programs are motivated by more than just maintaining island nations’ ocean interests. It is clear that the western nations who have increased funding for such operations are more concerned about the increased challenges they face in controlling their surrounding waters. By increasing the capacity of island nations to enforce their sovereignty over their own waters, western strategic security, and economic interests in the region are also retained in the process (Song et al, 2019).
What is evidently clear here is that Oceanic nations, despite being the recipients of large sums of aid, are caught in a geopolitical complex in which their agency is challenged with varying degrees of severity. Foreign influence in the region is certainly not new, and Chinese aid has stimulated infrastructural development while also reinvigorating western investment in the region as a response. However, the current geopolitical complex does certainly present challenges to how Oceanic nations and people are able to pursue their own goals in the region, particularly with regards to the governance and protection of its Oceans.
Guardians of the Ocean in the Modern Geopolitical Complex
So here I return to the following questions: how can Oceanic nations and peoples fulfill Hau’ofa’s (1994) vision of being the guardians of the Ocean, when this modern geopolitical complex is undermining the sovereignty they have over their own waters? How can Oceanic social and cultural networks compete with billions upon billions of dollars of conditional aid that shapes Oceanic governance according to foreign interests? How can illegal fishing activities by fleets of fishing boats be monitored over the huge expanse of the EEZs of oceanic nations? I’m not saying these questions are easy to answer, but I think many of the answers were explored by Edvard Hviding in his 1996 ethnographic monograph, The Guardians of Marovo Lagoon: Practice, Place, and Politics in maritime Melanesia. In his monograph he concluded:
“Present day discourses in Marovo, oppositional, confrontational, or otherwise, borrow freely and innovatively from global systems of political economy and meaning.” (Hviding, 1996).
What Hviding is suggesting here is that Oceanic peoples are not static players in the geopolitical complex. They are able to borrow certain foreign ideas present in the global political economy and incorporate them into their own local and traditional forms of governance. This includes borrowing foreign forms of environmentalism and incorporating them into traditional fishing taboos. Taboos broadly speaking refer to the restriction of specific practices in certain places. In this fishing example taboos refer to the restriction of fishing in certain waters. It is a common misconception, or at least a common overemphasis, that fishing taboos have always been implemented to manage and protect ocean resources in Oceania. It is being alternatively argued that such environmental concerns did not historically play a large factor in creating fishing taboos in Oceania (Foale et al, 2011). In fact, Oceanic peoples often believed that the Ocean possessed an inexhaustible quantity of resources which therefore did not need to be conserved (Foale et al, 2011). It is more likely that taboos were created to create an artificial scarcity of certain delicacies such as sea cucumbers, turtles, and some varieties of fish. Such delicacies were then harvested for certain people such as chiefs or big men, and at certain times for certain rituals and ceremonies. Therefore when these resources were harvested, given, and eaten, they were elevated in importance and thus became an integral component of defining social and cultural relationships and forms of prestige (Foale et al, 2011). What this suggests, at least in part, is that the more environmentalist elements that dominate the idea of taboo today are predominately a response to increased presence of foreign fishing boats and over harvesting.
Such environmentally informed fishing taboos are now starting to be incorporated into more formal Customary Sea Tenure (CST) arrangements which (1) allocates certain fishing grounds to certain users (2) defines how much can be extracted from such grounds (3) makes the transfer of such fishing grounds based on kinship ties and (4) contextualizes the use of fishing grounds in broader social cultural relations to communities in the region (Aswani, 2006). These CST arrangements allocate fishing grounds based on traditional taboos but are legitimatized on non-traditional environmental concerns. As Aswani (2006) states, CST arrangements are “providing a fertile ground for the cross-fertilization of traditional and modern rights-based fisheries management in particular fishing contexts”. The implementation of CST arrangements show how Oceanic communities are tangibly adapting to a changing geopolitical context that challenges the sovereignty they have over their own oceans. CST materially manifests fishing zone borders on charts, defines rights, and states the combined socio-cultural and environmental purposes they are created for in ways previously unseen. This is a great start but such CST arrangements are hardly going to deter a fleet of “blue boats” or other IUU fishing operations that have little regard for EEZs of Oceanic nations are they.
What I argue is more effective here is the discursive power of this emerging traditionalist/environmentalist message formed in Oceanic social and cultural networks. By combining traditional and foreign environmentalist ideologies, the protection of Oceanic resources is becoming a crucial matter of tradition. Environmentalism is thus rising in importance for Oceanic governments whose legitimacy largely rests on representing ethnic and cultural interests of their population. To the international community, or in other words to you reading this article; the aligning of environmentalism to traditional ways of life of Oceanic people makes Oceanic protection seem that much more urgent and vital. Oceanic protection becomes more personal for any global citizen who have their own ways of life that relies upon the protection of their own unique ideological premises. With this discursive power, Oceanic people are able to shape what is and what is not acceptable political and economic behavior in the region. Is this discursive power the same as a boat load of aid? No. This discursive power may also be much weaker in nations such as China who have various policies that restrict free dissemination of information and opinion. There also may be a degree of ambivalence or ignorant self interest among the citizens of western powers in the region. However, in what is increasingly considered a morally bankrupt global political system that does not represent the progressive global citizen, it is voices such as these that are inventively adapting to the geopolitical system that may increasingly be turned to in the future.
Oceanic people are fulfilling the role of being the guardians of the ocean within their local forms of governance and through their broader national and international discursive power. Is it enough? Its hard to say, but they are certainly a player in the geopolitical complex that cannot be ignored.
*This is an investigative research essay designed to provide a starting point for thinking about social change in Oceania, specifically related to changing local attitudes towards the Ocean and environmental roles in it. I would love to hear your thoughts or points of contestation below or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org*
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