Climate change and the existential dilemma to Oceania’s microstates

Author: Vikas Kumar, Bangalore

Threatened by geographic and demographic factors, the sovereignty of Oceania’s microstates has been precarious from their inception.

Each of these states has a small but highly diverse population spread over a very large area — their exclusive economic zones (EEZ) are comparable in size to EEZs of some of the world’s largest countries. But a shortage of skilled workers, insufficient infrastructure, weak public institutions, limited connectivity among islands, remoteness from international markets, vulnerability to natural disasters, and intermittent political instability have constrained economic development.

The independent existence of Oceania’s microstates is dependent on an international system committed to protecting small countries and providing them with aid and emergency support. But in the wake of the financial crisis, rising powers are challenging the existing international system, and the resultant uncertainty makes, for Oceania’s microstates, continued reliance on this system worrisome. This is all the more alarming when, in the foreseeable future, the microstates might have to relocate parts of their population due to rising sea levels, higher incidences of extreme weather events, and rising soil and groundwater salinity.

The Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Palau, and dependencies like the Cook Islands and Niue, which joined the United States and New Zealand under free association arrangements, are automatically assured of necessary support. But what are the options available to the hitherto absolutely sovereign microstates of Oceania, particularly Kiribati, Nauru, Samoa, Tonga and Tuvalu?

Buying land abroad will not solve their existential crisis because the resettled population will remain citizens of a dysfunctional or non-existent state for an indefinite period. Also, legal action against major polluting countries is not a reliable option because the international legal process is extremely time-consuming and, in any case, such countries are unwilling to acknowledge their contribution to climate change. Even if timely compensation could be obtained through legal action, the funds might not be sufficient to secure the microstates against climate change.

But there is another largely ignored option worth exploring: a political merger between two or more states.

It bears noting that a grand federation of Oceania’s microstates is not a solution. Multilateral merger negotiations among similarly sized but ethnically different states could be very divisive, perhaps leading to a repeat of extreme ethnic differences of the kind that split the Gilbert (Kiribati) and Ellice (Tuvalu) Islands in the 1970s. Further, any assortment of these microstates would inherit the capacity constraints of individual microstates, and will also be unable to pool risks because the prospective constituents face joint risks.

For such a merger to be viable, any prospective partner should not be small, far away, economically backward or facing similar existential threats. To facilitate the integration of two or more communities, a prospective partner should also be a multicultural democracy, common law jurisdiction, and experienced in managing territories in Oceania. Australia and New Zealand are the only countries that fulfil all these conditions.

Even without ‘merger,’ Australia and New Zealand have little choice but to intervene — the potential political unrest and economic instability that would ferment on their doorstep, if they did nothing, necessitates this. Merger will benefit the people of microstates by eliminating political and economic instability and obviating their dependence on governments that are not democratically responsible to them. Merger will also relieve them of the heavy burden of maintaining the paraphernalia of sovereignty and allow them to freely access a much larger labour market and cheaper and better quality public goods and services, including disaster management. In fact, merger would remove the need for desperate rescue operations by allowing phased, preventive relocation of vulnerable communities to safer locations within the union.

Such a merger would not cause adjustment problems in the concerned economies because a number of these microstates either use the Australian dollar as their currency or their currency is pegged to it and Australia and New Zealand are already their most important trade partners. Also, the economies of the microstates are too small to significantly impact the Australian or New Zealand economies after merger. Their combined GDP is less than one per cent of the Australian economy, or five per cent of New Zealand’s. And, after merger, Australia and New Zealand can freely harness the untapped marine resources of the microstates which could be used to benefit the displaced people and offset the costs of relocation and protection of the microstates.

In short, the proposed merger between the microstates of Oceania and Australia or New Zealand would resolve the microstates’ existential crisis, raise their people’s standard of living and not cause extensive economic or legal adjustment problems. And given that climate change negotiations are gridlocked, and reliable commitments from the international community to aid the microstates remain absent, the international community has a moral duty to support this.

Vikas Kumar is an independent researcher based in Bangalore.