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Securing The Future Of The Microstates Of Oceania – Analysis

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By Vikas Kumar

Oceania consists of two large states (Australia and Papua New Guinea), a medium-sized state (New Zealand), a small state (Fiji), ten micro-states (Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, Samoa, the Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu), and a number of dependencies (Cook Islands, Niue, etc).

Threatened by geographic and demographic factors, the sovereignty of Oceania’s microstates has been precarious from their inception. Each of these states has a small but highly diverse population spread over a very large area. For instance, Kiribati, the only country in all four hemispheres, has a population comparable to Andorra spread over an area equivalent of Europe. A third of its population is concentrated in the capital city resulting in a population density of over 5000 people per sq km. Geography is Kiribati’s primary enemy. In Vanuatu’s case demographic heterogeneity aggravates the problem due to geography. Its fledgling army is faced with the unenviable task of holding together one of the world’s most ethno-linguistically diverse populations spread over 700000 sq km. The experience of the Solomon Islands, with a highly diverse population spread over myriad islands, compares with that of Vanuatu.

Source: Matthew Gubb (1994), Vanuatu’s 1980 Santos Rebellion, Canberra: ANU

Interestingly, the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of each of these microstates is comparable in size to EEZs of some of the world’s largest countries. For instance, Kiribati’s EEZ is much larger than India’s EEZ. But a shortage of skilled workers, insufficient infrastructure, weak public institutions, limited connectivity among islands, remoteness from international markets, vulnerability to natural disasters, and intermittent political instability have constrained economic development. Subsistence farming, fishing, tourism (limited due to lack of connectivity), remittances, sale of stamps and coins, and lease of islands for military bases are the main sources of income. Almost half of these microstates belong to the United Nations’ Least Developed category. The resultant small tax base has handicapped the state in these countries.

Oceania: Source: Matthew Gubb (1994), Vanuatu’s 1980 Santos Rebellion, Canberra: ANU
Oceania: Source: Matthew Gubb (1994), Vanuatu’s 1980 Santos Rebellion, Canberra: ANU

In fact, the independent existence of Oceania’s microstates is dependent on an international system committed to protecting small countries and providing them with aid and emergency support. But in the wake of the recent global financial crisis, some rising powers are challenging the existing international system, and the resultant uncertainty makes, for Oceania’s microstates, continued reliance on this system worrisome. Under these circumstances, there is a real risk that a number of these microstates might fall prey to unscrupulous rising powers, some of which have already started to extend support to authoritarian regimes in Oceania. This is all the more alarming when, in the foreseeable future, the microstates might have to relocate parts of their population due to rising sea levels, higher incidences of extreme weather events, and rising soil and groundwater salinity.

The Marshall Islands (1986), Micronesia (1986), and Palau (1994) that joined the United States and dependencies like the Cook Islands (1965) and Niue (1974) that joined New Zealand under free association arrangements are automatically assured of necessary support. For instance, under the Compact of Free Association, the United States provides the concerned microstates with assured economic assistance, access to disaster management programs, etc. But what are the options available to the hitherto absolutely sovereign microstates of Oceania, particularly Kiribati, Nauru, Samoa, Tonga and Tuvalu?

Buying land abroad will not solve their existential crisis because in the aftermath of a major catastrophe the resettled population will remain citizens of a dysfunctional or non-existent state for an indefinite period. Also, legal action against major polluting countries is not a reliable option because international legal process is extremely time-consuming and, in any case, such countries are unwilling to acknowledge their contribution to climate change. Even if timely compensation could be obtained through legal action, the funds might not be sufficient to secure the microstates against climate change.

But there is another largely ignored option worth exploring: a political merger between two or more states. Note that a grand federation of Oceania’s microstates is not a solution. There are two reasons for this. First, multilateral merger negotiations among similarly sized but ethnically different states could be very divisive, perhaps leading to a repeat of extreme ethnic differences of the kind that split the Gilbert (Kiribati) and Ellice (Tuvalu) Islands in the 1970s. Second, any assortment of these microstates would inherit the capacity constraints of individual microstates, and will also be unable to pool risks because the prospective constituents face joint risks.

For such a political merger to be viable, any prospective partner should not be small (rules out countries like Fiji), far away (rules out countries like the United States and also helps avoid conflict between global powers that might delay the process of merger), economically backward (rules out countries like Papua New Guinea) or facing similar existential threats (rules out countries like Vanuatu). To facilitate the integration of two or more communities, a prospective partner should also be a multicultural democracy (rules out countries like Fiji), a common law jurisdiction, and experienced in managing territories in Oceania (rules out most external powers). Australia and New Zealand, which together account for more than 70% of Oceania’s population, 90% of its land, and almost its entire economic output, are the only countries that fulfil all these conditions.

It bears noting that even without ‘merger,’ Australia and New Zealand have little choice but to intervene — the potential political unrest and economic instability that would ferment on their doorstep, if they did nothing, necessitates this. Merger will benefit the people of microstates by eliminating political and economic instability and obviating their dependence on governments that are not democratically responsible to them. Merger will also relieve them of the heavy burden of maintaining the paraphernalia of sovereignty – like currency, army, and embassies – and allow them to freely access a much larger labour market and cheaper and better quality public goods and services, including disaster management. In fact, merger would remove the need for desperate rescue operations by allowing phased, preventive relocation of vulnerable communities to safer locations within the union.

Furthermore, the proposed mergers are unlikely to cause adjustment problems in the concerned economies because a number of these microstates either use the Australian dollar as their currency or their currency is pegged to it and Australia and New Zealand are already their most important trade partners. Also, the economies of the microstates are too small to significantly impact the Australian or New Zealand economies after merger. Their combined GDP is less than one per cent of the Australian economy, or five per cent of New Zealand’s. And, after merger, Australia and New Zealand can freely harness the untapped marine resources of the microstates which could be used to benefit the displaced people and offset the costs of relocation and protection of the microstates.

Now three issues remain to be addressed, namely, the demographic impact of the proposed merger, the ease of merger negotiations, and distribution of microstates between Australia and New Zealand.

In the worst case scenario even if the entire population of these microstates were to be relocated to, say, Australia then the latter would have to stop immigration from other parts of the world for about nine years, assuming the current immigration rate to be sustainable. But New Zealand, and to a lesser extent Australia, is already accepting migrants from the microstates. For instance, under the Pacific Access Category and the Samoan Quota, New Zealand accepts as many as 1500 persons per year from Kiribati, Samoa, Tonga, and Tuvalu. In Tuvalu’s case this arrangement is likely to stabilize its population at the current level. In other words, the demographic changes resulting from the proposed merger will not cause any major problems in either Australia or New Zealand. In any case, the Australian and New Zealand governments should legally cap immigration from other regions of the world to assure the voters that they will not be overwhelmed by environmental refugees. Also note that relocation will not cause substantial adjustment problems for the migrants from the microstates because a sizeable proportion of their population has experience of living in Australia and New Zealand as students and workers.

The merger negotiations will not be cumbersome because the people of the microstates need full citizenship rights and the right to relocate en masse with their communities, if required. The rest will be taken care of by the Australian and New Zealand constitutions, which will not allow discrimination and also afford reasonable protection to the customary rights and local autonomy of the people of the microstates.

The distribution of the microstates between Australia and New Zealand should be based on the preferences of the people of the concerned countries, the New Zealand navy’s capacity to assert its government’s sovereign rights, and New Zealand’s demographic sustainability.

To conclude, the proposed merger between the microstates of Oceania and Australia or New Zealand would resolve the microstates’ existential crisis, raise their people’s standard of living and not cause extensive economic, demographic, or legal adjustment problems. Further, given that climate change negotiations are gridlocked, and reliable commitments from the international community to aid the microstates remain absent, the international community has a moral duty to support the proposed mergers and caps on immigration.

(Vikas Kumar is an independent researcher based in Bangalore. He can be reached at e-mail [email protected] The views expressed by the author are his own)

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