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Have you ever wondered why South Pacific region is of great importance for the world? What was actually happened during World War and what all series of events were connected to it??
On a close observation of the Pacific Ocean between Australia and the USA, one can see the group of islands forming widespread cluster to the East of Australia. This region is commonly known as the South Pacific Region and the focus here is on the island nations belonging to the 3 main sub-regions called Melanasia, Micronesia and Polynesia.
Though the land area of these island nations may be small but they have very large Exclusive Economic Zones (It is the area that extends up to 200 nautical miles off the coastlines.) that give them special access to Pacific waters. As per International Law, countries are free to explore and exploit resources within their EEZs. To put this in perspective, the total land mass of the South Pacific islands might be around the size of the Spain but the oceanic area of their EEZ is bigger than the area of Europe.
One can only imagine the slew of opportunities that these zones can provide to these island nations for everything ranging from fishing to gas and mineral exploration projects. And this is just one reason why these islands play a key role in global geopolitics today.
Let us look back at the time of Second World War.
The islands (just located between Asia and Americas) were at the centre of the Asia – Pacific theatre of the war. And subsequently during that war, Americas formed an important base for the allied war against the Japanese, who were very active in this region. The Americans preferred to carry their Trans-Pacific operations in Asia through Hawaii, Fiji and Samos, as they were like ideal locations. These islands were instrumental in resisting Japanese offensives in the Pacific till the end of the war in August, 1945. Australia and New Zealand though detached from the war but they were very concerned about future Japanese aggression and whether British could able to protect them in such an eventual situations. As doubts grew, they moved closer to the US through the signing of the ANZUS treaty in 1951. Over the next few years, the US conducted 105 nuclear tests in the region, because of its isolated location away from regular air and sea routes. The islands of Micronesia and many other are still contaminated by the fallout. The US has since paid the islanders close to a billion dollars in compensation. France too has conducted 193 tests from1960-1996 in French Polynesia.
In the 1980’s, as the world progressed, these islands found themselves geographically isolated, and at the same time they were at a disadvantage in terms of infrastructural development due to lack of resources. Unfortunately, they were also at the mercy of cyclones, earthquakes and tsunamis. It was later only that the larger countries like Australia and New Zealand have started to aid the economic development in these nations after United Nation has passed the CONVENTION ON THE LAW OF THE SEA – 1982
It was due this law that the region rose to International prominence. The emergence of the EEZs placed these nations in an enviable position. Although US assisted in the development of the region under the ANZUS treaty, a more pressing concern was its location, midway between the Americas and Asia. Micronesia emerged as the home to several US territories like Guam and major Naval and Air force bases were set up to operate and train here.
The 90s and 2000s saw a new player enter these waters like China. China extended financial support in 2006 and promised to uphold the rights to their EEZs.
Since President Xi Jinpeng took office, China’s presence in the region has only increased exponentially. The island nations fit into China’s world view as an opportunity to expand their dominance over the world. The region was included in Xi’s grand Belt and Road initiative as a Maritime route. Trade through the region is much smaller as compared with the South China Sea but the islands hold the significance for launching space missions, and satellite tracking and also serving as a refuelling station for scientific expeditions moving to Antarctic. Also, having a stronger foothold in the region guarantees China a vantage point to monitor American submarine activity in these waters. However it would be difficult for China to supply these stations as effectively as the US, which has maintained a presence in the region for decades thanks to allies Australia and New Zealand. But more importantly, China hopes to isolate Taiwan. Since Taiwan has its diplomatic relation with 6 nations present in these regions. China through its masterstroke wants these nations to break their ties with Taiwan to isolate it further. Infact, China has slowly emerged as the leading trade partner for these islands and US is just waking up. Chinese control over island chains forms a key cornerstone to a broader global ambition. In the Northern Mariana Islands, the Chinese plan to launch massive casino resorts alongside a proposed US military base. While business experts feel that the US base will damage casino revenues. Defence experts see the tourism project as an intelligence masterstroke. China has been accused of setting up surveillance devices and conducting illegal fishing activities in these EEZ.
Interestingly, the natives are not only happy with the type of investment and trade opportunities that China is providing to them on one hand but they also have a sense of security by having US navy base nearby. It would be very interesting to see how the global geopolitics would shape in these regions in the years to come.