Backyard bully: Australia's imperialism in the Pacific

26 April 2020
Vinil Kumar

The COVID-19 crisis has given the “Pacific Step Up” – a strategy for curtailing China’s growing influence in the region by strengthening Australian diplomatic, cultural, economic and military ties with Pacific island nations – a new relevance. “If we do not make the ‘Pacific Step Up’ a ‘Covid-19 Step Up’”, Labor’s shadow minister for international development argued in the Guardian recently, “our Pacific friends will look to other nations to assist them in their time of crisis”.

Australian officials have not been happy about China providing COVID-19 testing kits and face masks to the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, nor about a Chinese plane delivering ventilators and other medical equipment to Vanuatu, preventing an Australian plane from landing there. The Australian government is keenly aware that the provision of aid by a foreign power in the Pacific is not about benevolence, but about control.

The Australian government’s motivations in the Pacific, much like its response to COVID-19 in Australia, have always been about advancing the interests of Australian capitalism. Scott Morrison’s claim that Australia is part of a “Pacific family” hides a sordid history. Australia is less a caring older sibling, and more a schoolyard bully that beats you up and takes your lunch money.

From its infancy, the Australian ruling class had its eyes on the region. The colonial administration in London and the elites of the eastern colonies considered nearby island groups, including New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Fiji, to be as much in their “sphere of influence” as the Australian mainland. The growing presence of rival powers in the region was viewed as a threat to potential colonial control over land, resources, labour and shipping corridors. While the eastern colonies had differing interests, they agreed on the need to establish a mini-empire in the region.

From as early as the 1820s, newspaper owners used their publications to agitate for the realisation of this ambition. The Sydney Herald and the Sydney Gazette urged the colonisation of New Zealand in 1839. In 1869, the Melbourne Age argued: “Since England can rule India, why should not Victoria make the experiment of trying to rule Fiji?”. In 1875, a 400-person banquet was held in the Sydney Exchange to inaugurate the pursuit of New Guinea. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, among those present were “most of the leading men connected with the trade and commerce of this city”.

However, the fledgling ruling class lacked the capacity to realise these lofty ambitions. They needed the backing of a larger military power. London was more concerned with putting its finite forces into more significant and profitable enterprises, particularly Egypt and India. The eastern Australian colonies therefore had to campaign vigorously for their Pacific expansion plans. Backing Britain, then the US, in their wars became part of securing the support of a powerful ally to underwrite Australian control in the Pacific.

New Zealand was the first project. The treaty of Waitangi was imposed in 1840 by New South Wales governor George Gipps and backed by British guns. Troops were dispatched to put down Indigenous resistance in the following years, resulting in more than 2,700 Maoris massacred during the “Land Wars”.

Fiji was next. The New South Wales Legislative Assembly made its first plea for British annexation in 1859. US and Australian settlers flooded the country and established cotton plantations after shortages due to the American Civil War. “Blackbirding”, the Australian trade in Pacific Islander slave labour, resulted in more than 45,000 people being taken to Fiji as cheap plantation labour between 1865 and 1911. Settlers from Victoria and New South Wales organised themselves into white supremacist organisations and helped put down Indigenous rebellions alongside colonial troops. A measles outbreak wiped out roughly one-third of Fiji’s population in 1875 after the disease was deliberately imported from Sydney.

The Melbourne-based Polynesia Company conducted the first significant seizure of land in Fiji six years before British annexation. In 1868, its representatives – Melbourne businessmen William Brewer and John L. Evans – took control of more than 200,000 acres of land including Suva, the current capital. The earliest government structures in Fiji were created to handle land disputes among plantation owners. Fijian chiefs acted as symbolic figureheads to give the government legitimacy. Even after independence, Australian officials occupied many senior positions in Fiji’s state bureaucracies until 2006.

Australian corporations have dominated the Fijian economy for much of the past century. Qantas is the major player in tourism, while Westpac and ANZ control much of the banking sector. Trading giants Burns Phillips and Morris Hedstrom are Australian run. Melbourne-based Colonial Sugar Refinery came to Fiji after sugar replaced cotton as its main agricultural product in the late 1870s. The company brought more than 60,000 indentured labourers from India to work on sugar plantations. Indians made up 39 percent of Fiji’s population by 1921. Stoking racist divisions between Indigenous Fijians and Indians was an important element of colonial rule, laying the basis for present day ethnic tensions.

Vanuatu, then the New Hebrides, became a priority for Australia after the French colonised nearby New Caledonia in 1853. During the 1860s, most settlers were from Australia, drawn by cotton, then cocoa, bananas, coconuts and slaves.

Australia began blackbirding in Vanuatu in 1863, taking more than 62,000 people from the country by 1901. Some islands had their entire male population kidnapped. A quarter of those taken died during transportation or shortly afterwards. In a cruel twist, when the White Australia policy was introduced in 1901, more than 7,000 islanders were deported to and abandoned on random islands.

While sections of capital profited from these enterprises in the Pacific, geopolitical concerns motivated the annexations of Fiji and Papua New Guinea. In 1875, the Melbourne Daily Telegraph spelled this out, stressing that there was “no promise of immediate wealth in New Guinea” and that “though we do not want the island ourselves, we do want very much that no one else shall have it”.

Imperialism didn’t always mean boots on the ground or direct control over Pacific territories. Throughout the 20th century, Australian control and Pacific immiseration took many forms.

Nauru was captured from Germany in 1914. For most of the 20th century, it remained under Australian control, being strip-mined for phosphate. Nauruans fought to set up an independent nation on Curtis Island rather than be Australian subjects. When Australia refused, the country declared its independence in 1968. Once the phosphate deposits were depleted, the economy collapsed. To survive, Nauru turned itself into a tax haven and agreed to the establishment of an Australian detention centre in 2001. From 2005, Australia appointed government advisers, including a secretary of finance with control over the country’s budget. The High Court of Australia was the highest legal authority in Nauru until 2018.

German New Guinea was also captured in 1914. Australian rule in the territories of Papua and New Guinea (which merged in 1949 and were renamed Papua New Guinea in 1971) meant the repression of Indigenous communities and Papuan workers by police and armed forces. During World War Two, Australian troops conscripted locals as unpaid labourers to carry wounded Australian soldiers during the Kokoda campaign. Those who refused were brutally punished. In some villages, all fit males were taken, resulting in the collapse of village life, starvation, disease and a sharp increase in infant mortality.

After the war, its constitution gave power to Australian officials, in particular the minister for external territories (the precursor to the minister for foreign affairs). Even after gaining independence in 1975, the country was dominated by Australian imperialism. Initiatives such as the 2003 Enhanced Cooperation Program planted high-ranking Australian officials within the state apparatus to make the country’s bureaucracy subservient to Australian capital. Most of PNG’s urban and mineral sectors are still dominated by foreign capitalists.

PNG remains the single largest recipient of Australian foreign aid, which is used as leverage to ensure cash-strapped governments remain compliant. Australian soldiers and police maintain a strong presence as part of security and training operations. This strategy has been repeated across the Pacific in the past 50 years.

Between 1965 and 1999, Australian governments supported Indonesian control over East Timor, backing the Suharto dictatorship, which massacred 200,000 people on the island. Australia sent troops to East Timor in 1999, supposedly to support independence, although they waited till some of the worst massacres were over in order not to antagonise Indonesia.

In the following decade and largely because of their presence in the country, Australia was able to secure billions in oil and gas revenue. As a 2004 statement by the Movement Against the Occupation of the Timor Sea pointed out: “East Timor is the largest international donor to Australia. The relatively small amounts you spend to help us do not compare with the amount you are stealing from our resource birthright”. Australia backed the imposition of harsh IMF structural adjustment programs, which turned East Timor into one of the poorest countries in Asia. Australia also maintains a military base in Dili, the capital.

Australian “success” in East Timor was followed up by an intervention into the Solomon Islands, which has significant mineral deposits and timber reserves and is near important shipping lanes. In July 2003, Australia led the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI), involving more than 2,500 troops and police. The old logic of the “white man’s burden” evolved into concern about “failed states” and “good governance”. Civilian members of RAMSI included economists, development assistance specialists and budget advisers. RAMSI took over many key posts within law enforcement, finance and other government departments.

In 2006, Australian soldiers and police were sent to Tonga to help put down pro-democracy protests and back up the Tongan monarchy.

Australian capitalism will defend the Pacific empire it has built for more than a century in the face of threats. Old myths will be called upon to justify imperialism. We will be told hope in the Pacific will come, not from the actions of 4,000 striking nurses in Papua New Guinea and solidarity from workers in Australia, but from boots on Pacific soil marching to the tune of Australia’s “national” interests. But Australia’s rulers have never fought for anyone’s interests but their own. Our allies are in workplaces here and across the ocean. Our common enemies are in Canberra.

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