Pacific islands, whether independent or not, are easy to ignore. They’re small and, with their limited resources, don’t have a whole lot to offer the rest of the world. They’re generally well-behaved and seldom make a fuss, so UN peacekeeping missions can be sent to other places like Africa or the Mideast where they’re more badly needed. No one pays much attention to them most of the time, but it’s comforting for world powers to know the islands are there when small favors are needed.
Every now and then, though, something happens that makes the powers – the United States, Australia, Japan and Britain – sit up and take notice of the tiny islands. It happened in the 1960s, the age of emerging nationhood and the stir toward independence. In the case of Micronesia, this meant the emergence of the political status question. That caught the attention of the United States in those Cold War days when the shadow of the Russian bear hovered over what we then called The Third World.
Then, in the 1980s, when Japan was emerging as an economic powerhouse, memories of the old “Co-prosperity Sphere” dream flashed to mind. Micronesia and its neighbors caught the attention of the world powers once again, even if only briefly.
Here we are again, but this time it’s not a bear; it’s a dragon breathing flames over the Pacific. The threat these days is China, building islands from tiny shoals and poised to extend its reach much further into an ocean that has always been up for grabs. In the eyes of most Western powers, China’s commercial domination would be just a prelude to military claims.
As China looms over the area, the big powers are getting worried once again. They have awakened to the strategic importance of those islands so easily forgotten. Maybe those islands are worth closer attention, perhaps even a serious investment of time and energy.
We should be grateful to China for drawing the attention of Western powers, especially the U.S., to the tiny spots they tend to take for granted. After all, even small islands with insignificant
economies, islands that don’t make much noise on the world scene, have long-standing problems that demand attention. Because the islands are small and remote, they can’t provide for their future without help from the outside.
Let’s take the islands in the northwest Pacific as an example. There are no civil wars brewing and no anarchist plots afoot, as far as we can tell. But the FSM, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and even Palau are wondering what will happen in a few years when the economic assistance
offered by the Compact comes to an end. Will they survive without U.S. aid in the years to come?
Or what about Guam, which chafes under federal restrictions and wonders if it will ever have a chance to choose its political future? The Northern Mariana Islands has its own problems, some related to bringing in foreign workers.
Thank you, China, for casting a dark shadow over the Pacific. The islands need that sort of threat every now and then. Thanks also for providing the little islands of Micronesia – to use a tautology – an occasion to capture the attention of those powers who have a stake in the Pacific.
This is an opportunity for the islands of the northwestern Pacific to form a cartel and sit down at the table with America, the world power with which they all have strong ties. If they take advantage of this rare opportunity, they might even find answers to some of their longstanding questions and provide for their future. Assuming, of course, that the islands can bring themselves to work as one to accomplish this.
If they do, they will owe you something, China. They wouldn’t have been able to do it without you.
Father Francis Hezel is a former full-time director of a research-pastoral institute known as the Micronesian Seminar. After serving as Jesuit mission superior in the Micronesian islands for six years, he continued heading the Micronesian Seminar until 2010.