Government and governance, International relations | The Pacific

14 September 2020

William Fisher, Australian consul-general to Micronesia 1983–87, gives his personal perspective on Australia’s historical role in encouraging Pacific regionalism, especially through the South Pacific Forum.

My first visit to the three Micronesian states now known as the Federated States of Micronesia, Marshall Islands, and Palau was in 1984. I was shocked by what I found. I had covered the South Pacific countries and territories previously, on posting, in regional meetings, and as head of the South Pacific Branch of the Department of Foreign Affairs. I was used to the contrast between the colonial parsimony of the United Kingdom and the financial ‘generosity’ of the French.

I was expecting to see American generosity, given the United States’ (US) insistence on the strategic importance of Micronesia and the centrality of the area for the US effort in World War Two. Instead, I was astonished at the lack of development — no sealed roads in Pohnpei, few public services, and appalling living conditions, particularly in the Marshall Islands.

The reason was obvious: the original ruler from 1947 to 1951 was the US Navy, as disinterested in ‘native welfare’ as the other colonial powers in the Pacific, other than the Australian and New Zealand Labor governments in the late 1940s. Little changed when the US Department of the Interior took over. This was curious given that this was a time of Cold War tension, of ‘star wars’ experimentation within the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands (TTPI) on Kwajalein Atoll, and of feared Soviet expansion into the northern Pacific. But there was little sign of US interest other than the massive US base at Kwajalein, for whose occupation the local population had been squeezed onto Ebeye Island.

By the mid-1980s, the US Department of Defense had largely checked out. It had overseen the drafting and acceptance of the Compacts of Free Association. This guaranteed US dominance of the region, protected US strategic interests, provided for any future US military activity, strictly limited Micronesians’ future diplomatic flexibility, and excluded any other state from trying to do anything which the United States did not approve of. Thus satisfied, Defense kept to its immediate interests – Kwajalein mainly – and left the TTPI to the Department of the Interior.

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While the US administration was largely uninterested, a raft of businessmen, from Taiwan, the Philippines, South Korea, and Japan, some distinctly shady, showed a keen interest. They could see excellent prospects for offshore businesses, both legitimate and illegitimate. Their preferred modus operandi was to recruit local political leaders, sign special private deals, pay money, and exploit the leaders.

It is a credit to so many of the local leaders that in many cases they stood strongly against these attempts at special deals and outright corruption. But they could see few other paths to development: their children were going away to third-rate US universities and then emigrating — another benefit of the Compacts — and little serious development interest was coming in. A future linked to the shadier side of east Asian businesses seemed unavoidable.

What struck me most was that while the Micronesians shared the same issues of smallness, neglect, and isolation as their South Pacific counterparts, especially their ethnic cousins in Kiribati, there was hardly any awareness within Micronesia of this complementarity, nor even of the existence of a commonality of interests. It seemed especially regrettable that the Micronesians knew nothing about regional forums like the South Pacific Forum, the Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA), the South Pacific Bureau for Economic Co-operation or even the South Pacific Community (SPC), the latter of which they were actually members, if largely inactive.

With Micronesia having now achieved its post-Compact plebiscites, and on the beginnings of the road to a sort of independence, I believed that Australia should and could make an effort to draw the attention of the Micronesian leadership to the prospects of further regional cooperation.

I took this up with all three presidents during my first visit. I said I would send them any relevant communications from the SPC, the FFA and, wherever we could, from the jewel in the group, the Forum. When I got back to Honolulu, I set up a system of personal letters to each president and waited to see if any took root.

On my next visit, I was delighted to find that these reports had stimulated a great deal of interest. In the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) especially, President Tosiwo Nakayama had read all the reports and quizzed me closely on regional organisations. Marshall Islands President Amata Kabua was also interested, if more immediately preoccupied with local problems — Bikini Atoll’s future, nuclear testing compensation clauses, Kwajalein refugees, and various Compact provisions unique to the Marshalls. He absorbed especially the material relating to Kiribati. Palau caught on by the end of my time – I suspect at the prompting of FSM.

I concentrated on the South Pacific Forum. As the meeting place of prime ministers and presidents, that is where real power lay and where the Micronesians would get firsthand experience of and friendship with their Pacific counterparts. As we know in the Pacific, it’s the personal contacts that count. If we could interest the South Pacific leaders in what was happening in the north, that would be a source of strength for the Micronesians in their own rather fraught commercial and political dealings with the outside world.

While things were progressing well on the Micronesian side, the same could not be said about the termination of the US Strategic Trusteeship and accession to a form of independence. As far as I could determine, the two issues were inaction by the US Department of the Interior and apprehension in the State Department over getting an appropriate resolution through the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) in the face of a possible Soviet veto.

Interestingly, there was no pushback from the Department of Defense, the organisation most prepared to stonewall anything that might jeopardise US defence interests. In Honolulu I had good relations with the commander in chief of Pacific Command (CINCPAC), Admiral Crowe. Crowe was a far-sighted man, later to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington. During several discussions about Micronesia, we agreed that the US had covered its strategic needs in the Compacts. I said that it was now important for the Micronesians to be better anchored in a friendly like-minded community, which existed already in the South Pacific. I noted that Australia was a full member of these organisations and could be relied upon.

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I was supported by the political advisors to CINCPAC, both very senior State Department officials, John Helble and later Carl Jenkins. Crowe gave his tick, Defense in Washington accepted his endorsement, and the path to Micronesian membership of the Forum in 1987 – just about their first international act as new states – was trouble free. Not so, the final passage through Congress, and the UN.

The passage through Congress was not a high-profile matter, hampered by the lack of interest of the Department of the Interior. It seemed to me that the Micronesia enterprise might fall over entirely, as negotiations stumbled along through 1986. I made several visits to Washington to various congressman, supported by two able Australian embassy officers.

We made much the same arguments as to Defense before, stressing perhaps most that a ‘natural’ international environment for the Micronesians could be found with us in the South Pacific institutions. That surely was an outcome which most suited long-term US interests, we argued. State and Defense departments were supportive, rather to the surprise of Interior. In the end even Interior did not resist, with the Compacts passing through Congress in 1986.

The UN angle was tricky. All other UN Trusteeships came under the Trusteeship Council, which included all UN members, and therefore had a strongly anti-colonial ethos. But the US Trusteeship in Micronesia was in a separate category, Strategic Trusteeship, under the UNSC. Any resolution was subject to a Soviet veto. This concerned the State Department, in particular if the Soviets vetoed a US request to terminate the TTPI. State feared this could led to a diplomatic, political and legal limbo.

We supported a solution whereby the draft UNSC resolution would be cast grammatically in the negative, so that the Soviets would need their own majority to defeat a resolution. That idea seemed to work, but officials in State then needed to ensure that the resolution gained a substantial majority among the 15 members.

A concerted diplomatic round of consultations took a further plebiscite in 1993 approving free association, the UNSC found that ‘the objectives of the Trusteeship Agreement have been fully attained, and that the applicability of the Trusteeship Agreement has terminated with respect to Palau’.

Thus the three Micronesian States launched themselves into the international community. While their Compact engagements to follow US demands in foreign policies committed them to some very odd votes in the UN, they had a free hand in regional matters in the Pacific. Their record as participants in Pacific regionalism over subsequent years has perhaps been patchy, but the opportunities are always there for them.

This article is an excerpt from DPA Working Paper 2020/4, Decolonising American Micronesia. The original paper can be found here.

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