Friday, July 29, 2011

Geopolitical lessons from another small Pacific island nation?

While seemingly off topic for Solomon Islands, this posting about NZ and its status with the US has some import for Solomon Islands and its search for useful influence in the complex and changing geopolitical scene.

Last week, NZ PM John Key travelled to the US and spent a half hour with President Obama, half of what was originally planned. Jonathan Milne, a NZ journalist travelling with Key filed an insightful report reflecting on the trip and the place of NZ in US imaginations and policy. What caught my eye was the section where he recounts the response of a key White House staffer:
Then, when White House spokesman Jay Carney was asked about Key's visit, he seemed somewhat at a loss. "New Zealand is a very important partner and ally," Carney said, seemingly stalling for time. "The President looks forward to the meeting. But you'll have to - I'll have to get back to you on more specifics."The fact is, there's a foreign leader or two visiting the White House every week. Obama and his advisers can't be expected to be all over the specifics of every small Pacific island nation.
It is not unusual for the NZ press to refer to the country as a Pacific country, but this is the first time I have seen it described as a "small Pacific island nation". As a citizen of one of Solomon Islands one of the Pacific's most denigrated states, it is a notable, and somewhat sobering realisation that the "big boys" of the region are absolute minnows in world matters.
But in the Solomons, we knew already that we were the littlest of the little. 
No, the possible lesson for SI comes a little further in the article, where Milne describes the effect of the thaw between NZ and the US relations in recent years. This has only occurred after the Kiwi government's famous stance against permitting US navel ships to enter its waters.  The US has chosen not to send ships to New Zealand since the 1987 nuclear-free law banning nuclear-powered or -armed vessels.  Now, with NZ contributions to Afghanistan since 2002, and a gradual resumption of intelligence and military training relations, NZ seems to be in a more favourable position with the US, than ever since the late 80s.  This re-found closeness may not be all it seems, points out Milne:
The truth is, New Zealand may be less relevant to America than ever before. Sure, the US will negotiate the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership with us. Sure, they'll send a troop of marines out to pay their respects.
But, perversely, the 25-year nuclear ships stand-off gave New Zealand a relevance that no longer exists now that we're an "important partner and ally" again.
In the 1980s, amid all the big challenges of the Cold War and a nuclear clock ticking towards midnight, New Zealand was a small problem to the US. Now, we're no problem at all.
Perhaps being a little bit of trouble to the great powers is better than being completely pliant. 

This calls to mind the infamous Jeannette Diana affair in 1984, when much to the chagrin of the US, Solomon Islands confiscated the US tuna seiner Jeannette Diana, and arrested the captain*. Costly sanctions were applied to Solomon Islands tuna exports, but this together with Solomon Islands courting of Soviet fishing offers, forced the US back to the Pacific regional tuna negotiation table, when up to that point it had refused to countenance a regional deal. 

As always these things need weighing up, but given the recent flat refusal by Australia, of PM Phillip's overtures about an Australian refugee processing center in the Western Province security presence, perhaps Solomon Islands has become too harmless for her own good. 

If we are mosquitoes apt to be trampled on anyway, perhaps a little bite or two is the least we can do for ourselves?

*U.S. WILL RESUME PACIFIC FISH TALKS, by BARBARA CROSSETTE, Special to the New York TimesNew York Times [New York, N.Y] 12 Oct 1986: .7.