An Indigenous ocean

| January 1, 2024

In September 2017, at the 48th meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum, the political leaders of the Pacific agreed a new regional approach. They announced the way forward as the “Blue Pacific – Our Sea of Islands, Our Livelihoods, Our Oceania”. It was a remarkable moment of solidarity and ambition, charting a vision towards 2050.

Powering the vision was – as most Pacific Studies undergraduates would have noticed – a seminal essay by the Tongan scholar Epeli Hau‘ofa, Our Sea of Islands, from 1993. Stock reading for Pacific Studies students, the essay is remarkable in its prescience (most readers find it compelling, decades after its publication) and now it had been elevated to the headlines of regional geopolitics. It’s a revealing example of how the study of the Pacific and the practice of Pacific politics often intersect.

In the wake of Hau‘ofa, Pacific politicians waxed lyrical about the “Sea of Islands”. “The Ocean is our cultural identity”, one politician riffed. “It is a cornerstone of our social cohesion. It is also the foundation of our economy and it is our road to prosperity.”

In opening the meeting, the host leader from Sāmoa spoke of the “Samoan Blue Pacific Identity”; that the ocean was the “fundamental essence of the region”; and that “the sheer fact of our geography, such as trends associated with shifts in the centres of global power […] places the Pacific at the centre of contemporary global geopolitics”. Of all the tools available to advocate for the Pacific and consolidate the region, the one chosen was story.

The “Blue Pacific” had already figured earlier that year, in June, at the United Nations Ocean Conference in New York. There, the efforts to implement UN Sustainable Development Goal 14, “Life Below Water”, had given rise to concrete solutions, a point that was particularly important to Pacific nations, which consider themselves the co-authors of that goal.

Rapidly, the Blue Pacific – a story about a place – had become a new place. Regional organisations connected through the Blue Pacific, and it became a cornerstone of diplomatic and national language. There were speeches, of course, and journalism, academic articles, music, debates and conferences.

At the 25th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, or COP25, in 2019, the South Pacific Regional Environment Programme called its pavilion “The Moana Blue Pacific Pavilion”. A sure sign of the story’s reach was that the “Blue Pacific” was appearing in the prosaic communications of the US State Department, which noted that “The Big Blue Pacific Continent Is a Force”. Which meant that it was.

New names, old stories

Holding together the new movement – which was launched at a moment of considerable difficulty for the region – was an old story. The Forum leaders and others around it explicitly referred to the Blue Pacific as a narrative. As the Samoan Prime Minister put it, “[t]he Blue Pacific provides a new narrative for Pacific Regionalism and how the Forum engages with the world”.

The Pacific was using the narrative to engage the world and address the climate emergency. The art of storytelling was enmeshed with political and geopolitical arts. The strategy was based in realpolitik – attempting to shore up the deals that leaders would and could make – but it also drew on both the deep Pacific past, millennia of voyaging around the Ocean, and more recent developments.

These included the cooperative regional approach developed politically from the 1960s, and key thinking and writing on the regional theme, which became embedded in Pacific discourse in the second half of the 20th century. The regional leaders frequently quoted the Tongan anthropologist and artist Epeli Hau‘ofa; they cited the writings and words of the politician scholar Ratu Mara; they held up of the idea of a New Oceania developed by the Samoan scholar, artist and writer Maualaivao Albert Wendt.

I am aware that describing the Pacific as constituted through layers of stories, narrative and naming risks being seen as ethereal, untethered from supposed “concrete” realities. This is the opposite of what I believe.

In a very deep and powerful way, a central struggle of the Pacific in the future will be, as it has been in the past and is today, the contest over names and the stories they hold. Indigenous communities have shown that while sovereignty and political control may be wrested from local peoples (though typically not for long), their ability to control language, culture, names, stories and histories has made for ongoing and deep reservoirs of contest.

The Indo-Pacific as geopolitical construct

In the past decade we have seen two powerful conjurings of name and place essential to the future of the Pacific. The “Indo-Pacific” is a pseudo-geographic term used to gesture towards political groupings. Rarely used before, in the 21st century it has come to be used by the United States and its allies to describe a hitherto unknown place, one that is obviously a counter to the influence of China in the region.

The Indo-Pacific is now a geopolitical construct said to encompass the Indian Ocean, the South China Sea, and shifting, unspecified parts of the Pacific Ocean. In other words, it both marginalises and co-opts the Indigenous Pacific of which I write.

The Indo-Pacific has gone from something no one had ever heard of, to being about the most important thing in the world. Indeed, as the US president writes, “the future of each of our nations – and indeed the world – depends on a free and open Indo-Pacific enduring and flourishing in the decades ahead”. It seems almost flippant to note that the Indo-Pacific, too, is a story; a narrative told about the world that has called a new place into being.

The Indo-Pacific narrative is material: it has already ordered and structured activity in the world. Such is the power of this particular narrative and construct that it is central to many of the most vital geopolitical discourses and activities globally. In particular, it is crucial to AUKUS, the new security pact formed by Australia, the United Kingdom and the US in September 2021.

The AUKUS alliance involves as its centrepiece the acquisition by Australia of nuclear-powered submarines, as well as some other technology transfers, and the explicit object of the AUKUS agreement is to “sustain peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific”. Which is to say that without the Indo-Pacific story, AUKUS would have no clear object or domain.

The Indo-Pacific thus arrives as an explicit counter to other narratives, but with weight and consequence – nuclear, military, political and economic (it is projected to cost Australia between A$268 and $368 billion, in a field famed for cost overruns) – unavailable to Pacific nations.

The Indo-Pacific now has its own experts, managers and agents – and, perhaps most ominously, its own generals and admirals, foreign policies, armies and navies: not least “USINDOPACOM” (US Indo-Pacific Command), which has fully subsumed what was once Pacific Command, including the expropriation of its URL.

The Indo-Pacific carries a different understanding of the world, and it is one that puts what I have called the Indigenous Pacific at the margins. It also reveals the different ways of seeing of, on the one hand Australia, New Zealand and the US, who are retelling the Indo-Pacific AUKUS story; and on the other, the peoples of the Independent Pacific, who are critical of it, particularly its nuclear dimensions and its potential to create and escalate political tensions.

An unequal ocean

The materiality of different narratives about the Pacific makes clear not only their differences and complexity, but the inequality of circumstances. Though there is a vibrancy to Indigenous traditions and narration, they do not have the same access and circulation; the Pacific remains an unequal ocean.

The profound inequalities that were a hallmark of colonised experience in the past inflect the disadvantages of the present, and the two dimensions are intimately connected.

These material inequalities speak to the deep connections between present and past in the postcolonial Pacific. In very few areas is this not apparent, but I wish to draw attention to one specific way in which the colonial, and particularly the decolonising experience, shaped the unequal oceanscapes of the present: mobility.

The conditions of decolonising, or – in places not yet decolonised – the ongoing conditions, determine the ability of Pacific peoples to move, visit and especially to work in wealthier societies. An American Samoan is entitled to visit and work in the US; a Samoan from independent Sāmoa is not.

At its closest point, Papua New Guinea is less than four kilometres from its former colonial ruler, Australia; but it is separated not just by a small gap of water, but a border of regulation and immigration control. There are three times as many Samoans in Australia as Papua New Guineans, and most of the Samoans have come via New Zealand – further away, but administratively much closer, and with free access on a New Zealand passport.

This means that both the pathways (which have typically been airways) to present economic conditions, as well as those to future economic opportunities, were chiefly forged under conditions of colonialism and empire.

The terms and conditions of formal decolonisation – what I think of as the decolonising bargain – was a bargain struck in profoundly unequal times and in unequal ways, where much of the power lay with former colonial rulers and international players. This decolonising bargain continues to structure mobility and other accommodations, as well as much else about present relationships, and it is rare that the Indigenous Pacific gets the better part of these deals.

‘New blackbirds’

These inequalities are evident at the national level for the Indigenous Pacific, but also in larger transnational and smaller, more local ways. The Pacific diaspora, so deeply conditioned by the decolonising bargain, has not mattered equally to Pacific nations recently.

In Melanesia, where the majority of Pacific people live, avenues of mobility are deeply restricted; in Polynesia and Micronesia, a majority of nations have some protected pathways to metropolitan nations. In smaller islands and nations these opportunities have seen mobility on remarkable scales; Niue is perhaps the most striking. Since the 1970s the number of Niueans in Niue has declined by around two-thirds, falling from over 5,000 to less than 2,000. The rest have “Gone Niu Silani”.

The new approach of Australia and New Zealand to exploiting Pacific labour has changed things: until the 2010s, to get Pacific peoples’ labour one had to allow them to be able to live, work and access education in at least semi-permanent ways. Since then, New Zealand, followed by Australia, has pursued a seasonal model that circumvents this, with Pacific people framed solely as workers, and forced home after a season.

This has been an economic boon for employers, but has had mixed, and increasingly deleterious, effects on Pacific peoples and their communities. The predicament of these Pacific people has even been likened to those recruited or kidnapped to work on sugar plantations over a century ago, in calling them the “New Blackbirds”.

The inequalities are unmistakable at the national scale: the independent Pacific nations are among the poorest nations in the world, but neighbours like the US, Australia and New Zealand are at the other end of the wealth scale.

Coarse indicators can tell the story because it is coarse: Australia has ten times the GDP per person of its former colony, Papua New Guinea, as does France compared with its territory Wallis and Futuna, and the US with its former colonies in the Marshall Islands and Federated States of Micronesia; New Zealand’s GDP per capita is seven-and-a-half times that of Sāmoa, which it governed until 1962.

Behind those numbers are powerful differences in healthcare, education and social provision, and they are reflected in almost every social statistic that is measured. As elsewhere in the former (or, as some might contend, currently) colonised world, the visible benefits of colonialism are not readily evident.

Former NZ prime minister Chris Hipkins at Polyfest in Auckland in 2023.

Mobility and sovereignty

Economic and educational opportunity sit at the heart of the Pacific diaspora, but there, too, the inequalities are unmistakable. In New Zealand, Australia, Hawai‘i and the US, in the blunt statistics of wellbeing and quality of life – health, education, housing – Indigenous peoples face worse outcomes than their non-Indigenous neighbours.

In each of these places, Indigenous Pacific migrants experience outcomes that more closely match their Indigenous neighbours than those of Pākehā/Papālagi/white populations.

Such an unassailable truth is this in New Zealand that not only are social statistics typically reported at different population levels, but a statistical category of non-Māori/non-Pacific is often used by government agencies. This is because Māori and Pacific outcomes are so much poorer than those of other New Zealanders, and the populations of both are so significant, that they distort both the analysis of these numbers and the numbers overall.

The same approach is taken in parts of Australia, too, and a similar impetus sat behind the disaggregation of a US population category and a recomposition (in censuses from 2010) of “Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander”.

The Pacific nations and populations with higher standards of living – by traditional economic and social measures – are typically those with the closest relationship to former colonial powers, the least independence and the greatest political investment from their former governors.

The standards of living experienced in Hawai‘i, Guam and French Polynesia sit at another end of the spectrum from those of the Solomon Islands or Vanuatu. The trouble is, however, that these overall numbers hide domestic inequalities, particu¬larly in the Pacific settler colonies.

In those wealthier places we see locally the kind of powerful expressions of inequality that echo those of the wider Pacific: whether they are high rates of poverty and homelessness amongst Native Hawaiians in Hawai‘i or vastly differing standards of living between the majority of Kanaks and the Caldoche (French settlers) of New Caledonia. There are also other costs that these Indigenous Pacific people confront — paid in language, culture, well-being, identity, independence and sovereignty.

The transnational dimensions wrought by those Indigenous folks afforded mobility are profound. As Epeli Hau‘ofa so powerfully put it, these Pacific peoples can craft lives that resonate with the mobility of the ancestors. But the majority of Pacific peoples do not have access to transnational mobility. Few things are so absolute as lack of access to a passport, entry rights and an immigration visa.

Those of us in the Pacific diaspora who grew up dependent on these things know the force of them in our lives and the lives of our families. Some Pacific people are more mobile, assigned a citizenship or nationality that gives passports and paths to move that are denied – often strenuously – to others.

So it is that French Polynesians and Uveans may move around to other French territories, including France (and Europe); or Niueans to New Zealand; or Chamorros from Guam to the US. The opportunities can be life-changing, but so can the costs: the loss of sovereignty in most cases, but manifold other negative effects, from nuclear testing to military bases, from mining to profound assaults on and undermining of culture and language.

I have shared this thumbnail portrait of Pacific inequalities – geopolitical, national, transnational and domestic – not for its own sake, but because of the bearing these conditions have on our present understanding of the Pacific. These conditions shape Pacific research, scholarship and analysis, as they do those who are undertaking this work. They do so in powerful ways, and not all of them have attracted attention in the way they should.

This edited extract from An Indigenous Ocean: Pacific Essays by Damon Salesa (Bridget Williams Books) was published by The Conversation.