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  • Writer's pictureJenia Browne

POLS 1160: How Foreign Affairs Have Increased Conflict in the Pacific Island Region

How Foreign Affairs Have Increased Conflict in the Pacific Island Region

The Pacific island region is a diverse and challenging region, with cultural, economic, and political disparities between and within Pacific states leading to a great potential for conflict. The region has rapidly experienced development throughout history, with colonization, the Pacific theatre of WWII, and neo-colonialism having a lasting effect on the current state of the Pacific (Stewart, 2011). This rapid globalization left both positive and negative impacts. While the predecessors for conflict are frequently explored in international relations theory and occasionally connected to the Pacific, the impact of foreign affairs is often left out of this dialogue. The goal of this paper is to make this connection and elaborate on how foreign affairs and involvement have created conditions that lead to increasing conflict in the Pacific islands.

The Pacific region is geographically divided into Polynesia, Melanesia, and Micronesia. This paper will be focused on three case studies in three Melanesian states: The 1988-1998 conflict in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea, the 1998 conflict in the Solomon Islands, and the 2000 coup of the Chaudry government of Fiji (Böge, 2001). The standard definition of foreign affairs used in this paper is “matters having to do with international relations and with the interests of the home country in foreign countries” (Marks, 2015). For the purpose of this essay, non-state actors such as foreign corporations will be included in the definition of foreign affairs. The case studies explored in this paper are intra-national, with the possible exception of the Bougainville case. Bougainville Island belongs geographically to the Solomon Islands and constitutionally to Papua New Guinea (Böge, 2001). These cases had lasting effects on stability in the Pacific, and foreign relations were the predecessors and catalysts for violence.

Literature Review

The current literature most relevant to this topic includes Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations?, Frances Stewart’s Horizontal Inequalities as a Cause of Conflict: A Review of CRISE findings, and Thomas F. Homer-Dixon’s “Environmental Scarcities and Violent Conflict: Evidence from Cases'' published in the 19th volume of the International Security journal. These papers each address what they believe causes conflict, covering a cultural hypothesis, a horizontal inequality hypothesis, and a green war hypothesis, respectively. According to Huntington (1993), the cause of conflicts in the modern world are cultural: “differences among civilizations are not only real; they are basic… These differences are the product of centuries” (p. 25). In addition, these differences are constant (Huntington, 1993). The lines drawn in conflict as to who will side with who are determined by cultural differences between civilizations. This means the extreme level of diversity of the Pacific may already create a foundation for high levels of conflict. The gap in the literature that this paper aims to fill is the increased level of conflict caused by colonialism and theatres of war because of how cultures, or civilizations, as Huntington (1993) puts it, were forced to interact. In addition, the case studies explored in this paper do not involve states as the main actors in conflict, possibly due to the ongoing development process in Pacific states. Indigenous civilizations are also not the focus of Huntington’s piece, and the structure of indigenous cultures play a large role in conflict in the Pacific.

Since the publication of Clash of Civilizations, works such as Stewart’s Horizontal Inequalities as a Cause of Conflict: A Review of CRISE findings have aimed to pinpoint the other causes of conflict beyond the cultural realm. Horizontal inequalities (HIs) look to merge social, cultural, political, and economic hypotheses on the cause of conflict in the modern world (Stewart, 2011). These horizontal inequalities have been evaluated in the Asia and Pacific region, but again, have not been connected to the foreign relations that caused HIs in the Pacific.

Finally, Homer-Dixon’s (1994) piece explores how environmental factors can exacerbate conflict. Scarcity, migration, and economic and political effects of environmental degradation all affect conflict in the Pacific, and literature examining the extent of the damage is only now being published (Homer-Dixon, 1994). The Pacific region is experiencing sea-level rise faster than the global average, with loss of land and damage to the agricultural sector creating more problems for an already developing region (Trouble in Paradise, 2019). This is despite the fact that the region only emits 0.03 of global emissions (Doherty, 2019). Because of this obvious disparity between the Pacific islands’ contribution to environmental degradation and the severity of regional effects, this paper will explore the impact of foreign environmental policy on conflict in the Pacific.


This paper will follow deductive reasoning using the three aforementioned case studies to prove the main hypothesis that foreign affairs have created conditions that lead to increasing conflict in the Pacific islands. It is important to note that the chosen case studies all take place in Melanesian states because of the foreign factors that make this region of the Pacific more prone to conflict. The majority of states within Micronesia (except Kiribati and Nauru) are still heavily influenced by the United States, meaning that any insurgence or conflict would likely invoke US involvement. Polynesia has a limited number of independent states, possibly creating fewer conditions for conflict or too much potential risk for resistance (Böge, 2001). The selected case studies will be used to argue my main hypothesis and its three sub-hypotheses:

H1: Foreign affairs have created conditions that lead to increasing conflict in the Pacific islands.

Ha: Colonial history and practices cause or worsen the conditions needed for cultures or “civilizations” in the Pacific to conflict.

Hb: The economic and political conditions that worsen ethnic conflict in the Pacific are at least partially caused by foreign policies and corporations.

Hc: The environmental factors that aggravate conflicts in the Pacific region are mostly caused by foreign actors.

To defend H1, arguments will be made for Ha, Hb, and Hc, within each case study. Not every sub-hypothesis will be present in each case. The case studies were narrowed down by choosing relatively recent conflicts where foreign actors were present. These three conflicts are also among the most commonly found in research, allowing for a more in-depth response and variety of literature. The hypotheses listed above will be supported by connecting the causes of conflict explored in the literature review to foreign affairs.

Case Study 1: Bougainville Island, Papua New Guinea

The Bougainville conflict occurred from 1988-1998 and is possibly the longest and bloodiest conflict in the Pacific since the Second World War. Geographically, Bougainville Island belongs to the Solomon Islands, but constitutionally, the island is a part of Papua New Guinea (Böge, 2001). After Papua New Guinea gained independence in 1975, opencast copper mines became a large part of the state’s economy (Ogashiwa, 2009). The Panguna Copper mine, owned by large British mining company Riotino Zinc, was located in Bougainville. Over the years, the mine caused severe ecological damage due to the fact that it had no environmental regulations or restrictions, leading to the degradation of Bougainville’s ecosystem and the partial destruction of the traditional ways of life of Boungainville’s people (Böge, 2001).

Most indigenous cultures in the Pacific have very unique and significant connections to land - making it a common source of conflict in the region. The mine caused the relocation of 200 households, created light and noise disturbances, and left relocated peoples in decaying home structures. The compensation provided to homeowners in the area was only 0.2% of the revenue of the mine, and these financial contributions, although small, disrupted the “system of reciprocal gift-giving and equality” (Wilson, 2006, p. 21) traditional to Bougainville’s economy.

In response, the New Panguna Landowners Association, composed mostly of younger generations on the island, made demands for ecological compensation and regulation of the mine’s activities, which were denied by the company. After this, protests began, eventually leading to the formation of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) (Böge, 2001). The BRA grew, partly due to the amount of violence exhibited by the local police and the Papua New Guinea Defense Force. Eventually, the BRA began echoing Bouganville secessionist ideologies that had been present on the island since the 1960s and 1970s. The conflict eventually reached a stalemate in the summer of 1997 and a formal ceasefire in April 1998 (Böge, 2001).

The motivations for the civil conflict in Bougainville were not limited to land use and mining, as secessionist sentiment eventually rose and became one of the main ideologies of the BRA. As previously discussed, the island of Bougainville belongs geographically and culturally to the Solomon Islands. As Yoko Ogashiwa (2009) explains, “Although the Bougainevillians were ethnically linked to the people in Western Province of [the] Solomon Islands, Bougainville was incorporated in the territory of Papua New Guinea, based upon boundaries from the colonial era” (p. 159). Because of colonial borders instated by foreign actors, secessionist sentiment grew in Bougainville long before this conflict occurred (Wilson, 2006). Negotiations with the British and Australian owners of the mines in the 60s and 70s contributed to the issue as well. In most of the cultures native to Bougaineville, land ownership is passed down matrilineally, meaning that women are the owners and traders of land. In the 1960s and 1970s, foreign businessmen negotiated with the men of Bougaineville, who culturally had no rights to the land. This further confused land issues and contributed to the degradation of traditional cultural practices on the island (Böge, 2001). As Ha states, these colonial practices and interactions set the stage for the Bougainville conflict to occur. Without the ethnic and cultural division between Bougainville and the rest of Papua New Guinea, there would be no secessionist sentiments to help light the fire of the BRAs movement. The conflict itself was sparked over a foreign business’ mismanagement of land and resources on the island, and worsened by the lack of cultural awareness of these foreign businesses. This case then supports Ha.

The presence of a foreign business worsened the economic conditions of Bougainevillians. As mentioned previously, native landowners did not receive proper compensation for the destruction and use of their land. Many received one-time payments that were not sufficient for the cultural and economic costs. To make matters worse, agricultural and fishing practices saw reduced productivity due to the environmental damage done by the mine. Finally, the mine attracted non-Bougainvilleans, who held the majority of the jobs at the Panguna mine (Wilson, 2006). The mine essentially created economic horizontal inequality, which is defined by Stewart (2011): “Economic HIs include inequalities in access to and ownership of assets—financial, human, natural resource-based and social, and also inequalities in income levels and employment opportunities, which depend on such assets and the general conditions of the economy.” (Stewart, 2011, p. 1-2). In accordance with Hb, these HIs were created, or at the minimum worsened, by a foreign actor, and became the motivation for the New PLA’s initial demands and the protests that occurred afterward.

Finally, Hc played an obvious role in the Bouganville conflict. The New PLA’s demands were mainly related to environmental damage, which threatens Bougainvillians culture and practices (Wilson, 2006). While secessionist sentiment and political and economic inequalities were present on the island, the first motivator of conflict was the environmental damage being done to the island by a foreign actor. This environmental degradation may have affected this conflict more than it would have in another region, considering the cultural links to the environment. Like Hc states, the environmental issues that interconnected with the political, economic, and cultural issues aggravated the situation.

Case Study 2: 2000 Chaudhry Government Coup, Fiji

The 2000 coup of the Mahendra Chaudhry-led government was the result of years of ethnic division between indigenous Fijians and Fijians of Indian descent, or Indo-Fijians. Indo-Fijians, who are directly descendant of the 60,000 Indian laborers brought to the island by British colonial rulers between 1879 and 1916 to work on sugar cane plantations, have not assimilated or melded with Indigenous Fijian culture, mostly due to Britain’s “divide and rule” policy. This policy prevented the mixing of cultures and peoples. Divide and rule created an environment prone to ethnic conflict, especially considering the socioeconomic and political power imbalance between indigenous Fijians and Indo-Fijians. 40,000 of the aforementioned Indian migrant laborers remained in Fiji after their 10-year contract ended. Though they initially remained in the sugarcane industry, Indo-Fijians eventually found work in administration, business, healthcare, and education, among other industries. By 2000, Indo-Fijians were the majority of the business and education elite and made up a larger portion of these sectors than indigenous Fijians. (Böge, 2001).

On May 19th, 2000, George Speight led armed citizens to storm Fiji’s parliament building, and subsequently held 45 members of parliament and government hostage for 56 days (Wilson, 2006). Their demands included that Prime Minister Chaudhry left office, that the constitution, ratified in 1997, be repealed, and that special privileges for indigenous Fijians were granted. In addition to the hostage situation, attacks on Indo-Fijians began to take place. Eventually, on July 9th, 2000, the Muanikau accord was signed between the rebels and an interim military government, leaving the Chaudhry government out of power and the constitution out of effect. (Böge, 2001).

The 2000 coup that occurred in Fiji is probably the clearest case that supports Huntington’s theories in Clash of Civilizations?. Two groups, while diverse within themselves, conflicted due to their cultural differences (underlined by horizontal inequalities that will be discussed later). Similar to the Bougainville case, these two “civilizations” interacted at the time because of colonial practices. An article by the Conciliation Resources, an organization focused on peacebuilding and resolving violent conflict, states that “Although this political instability has complex causes, ethnopolitical divisions between the Indo-Fijian and indigenous Fijian communities are generally accepted as a major underlying factor… This division originated in Fiji’s pre-independence history, with colonial rulers separating political power along ethnic lines” (Fiji: The Conflict in Focus, n.d.). Once again as Ha states, colonial practices created the conditions necessary for cultural conflict. Without foreign interference, these groups likely would not have come into contact, at least at the time and under the circumstances that they did. In addition, the “divide and rule” policy allowed negative sentiment to grow between indigenous Fijians and Indo-Fijians. Like in Bouganvillian cultures, land is extremely important to indigenous Fijians; “Vanua” means both land and tribe in Fijian, as tribes do not exist without the land they settle on, and land is nothing without the tribe inhabiting it. British colonial rule mixed traditional land systems with western, capitalistic systems such as owning and leasing land (Böge, 2001). This erosion of traditional land systems created tension between typically indigenous Fijian landowners and Indo-Fijian tenants. Obviously, without Britain’s role, these conflicts would not exist, at least at this scale.

Hb is applicable to this case in that the mass immigration of Indian laborers to Fiji (and into one of the largest industries in Fiji) created the economic and social disparities between indigenous Fijians and indo-Fijians. These economic HIs, caused by foreign affairs, were a large motivator in the coup, with special privileges for indigenous Fijians being one of the demands (Böge, 2001). Hc is not particularly applicable to this case.

Case Study 3: Guadalcanal Island, Solomon Islands

The Solomon Islands gained independence in 1978, with Guadalcanal and Malaita being the state’s largest islands. The country contains 120 different ethnolinguistic groups, 95% of whom are of Melanesian descent. The capital city of The Solomon Islands, Honiara, is on the island of Guadalcanal. During World War II, the United States established a military base in Guadalcanal, and a significant number of Malaitans moved to Guadalcanal for work. A second migration from Malaita to Guadalcanal occurred after the Solomon Islands gained independence from Britain and rural workers sought employment. Eventually, 60,000 Malaitians lived on Guadalcanal, and Malaitians became overrepresented in police forces and government (Böge, 2001).

In July 1998, Guadalcanese militants known as the Guadalcanalese Revolutionary Army (GRA) and later the Isatabu Freedom Movement (IFM) began attacking Malaitians living on Guadalcanal. The IFM drove Malitian communities off of Guadacanalese plains, and the situation escalated into Honiara falling into a sort of siege situation. In June 1999, the government declared a state of emergency on the island. In early 2000 in Honiara, Malaitans, under the Malaitan Eagle Force (MEF), started to attack non-Malaitians. The MEF eventually kidnapped the current Prime Minister Ulufa’alu (of Malaitian descent) on June 5th, 2000, and installed Manasseh Sogavare as the Prime Minister. By October of that year, the MEF and IFM signed the Townsville Peace Agreement (Wilson, 2006). Despite this, the conflict was never truly resolved, as both parties did not fully hold up their end of the bargain (Böge, 2001). The political instability continued long after the conflict, as seen in demonstrations such as the Honiara conflict in April 2006 (Wilson, 2006).

The predecessor to conflict on Guadalcanal Island is the mass migration of Malaitans to Guadalcanal. The presence of a United States military base on Guadalcanal was the first catalyst for this mass migration. Without this, the number of Malaitians on Guadalcanal would likely be lower than it was at the time of this conflict (Böge, 2001). Although Guadalcanal was not a colony of the United States at the time, it was used for a military advantage, which later contributed to the outbreak of conflict on the island. Although not a direct support of Ha, this predecessor to the conflict does show how foreign affairs can affect a region long after the incident occurred.

Economic and political HIs certainly played a motivating role for both the MEF and IFM. The Guadalcanalese were at a political disadvantage during an already difficult time; The Solomon Islands was 240 million dollars in foreign debt in 1997. This debt was twice the national budget. Lack of representation in an economically trying time in addition to unclear claims to their land built resentment for Malaitians residing in Guadalcanal (Böge, 2001). The foreign debt led to economic policies that reduced job availability and pushed the Guadalcanalese back to subsistence farming practices, which worsened the land disputes where the odds were already against their favor. With the Guadalcanalese organizing land matrilineally, and the Malaitians organizing land patrilineally, the foreign debt and foreign pressure worsened confusing land systems that aggravated small scale violence, eventually building to the conflict discussed prior (Böge, 2001). In these ways, Hb is applicable to this case study.

Finally, Hc was very prominent in the Guadalcanese-Malatian conflict. In an article published in the Lowy Institute’s The Interpreter, Nic MacLellan (2014) asks, “For example, what impact did the 1998 El Niño drought have on decisions made by Guadalcanal landowners to seize land used by Malaitan settlers?” In the same way that foreign debt created land pressures, environmental problems may have added to the land disputes occurring on the island. As previously discussed, the Pacific themselves emits very little in comparison to other regions of the world, but they feel the most effects (Doherty, 2019). Environmental policy abroad can contribute to increasing the strength of weather events such as El Niño, therefore adding to the source of conflict as stated in Hc.

Final Analysis

In the above three cases, foreign affairs, both in the form of states and non-state factors, created or exacerbated the conditions necessary for conflict to occur in the Pacific. All three sub-hypotheses were applicable to at least two cases, and without foreign involvement in these cases, the effects of the predecessors to conflict would not have been as extreme. This shows the duration of time foreign policy and practice can affect a region. The Pacific continues to see intra-national conflict, such as continued protests in Fiji (Wilson, 2006). Generally, the effects of colonization were the strongest evidence of foreign affairs creating conditions for intra-national conflict after the fact.

Environmental factors worsened these conditions, and will likely continue to in the future as climate problems become more prominent. As MacLellan (2014) puts it, “climate change is not the sole determinant of instability, but can be a multiplying factor where other vulnerabilities to conflict are present.”

Although not discussed in this paper, the use of foreign resources by states and corporations is becoming more of a discussed issue, as it is creating more HIs and reducing access to jobs for Pacific citizens (Firth, 2018). Recently, foreign engagement in the Pacific has been taking a more positive turn, focusing on developing good governance through aid and international partnerships (Dayant, 2019). This trend may help bring increased stability to the Pacific region.


In Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, he states that “In the politics of civilizations, the peoples and governments of non-Western civilizations no longer remain the objects of history as targets of Western colonialism but join the West as movers and shapers of history” (Huntington, 1993, p. 23). While non-Western states continue to shape history, the impact that the Global North, colonialism, and imperialism have left on them is not going away soon. Neo-colonialism and neo-imperialism continue to negatively affect Pacific island states. These three cases of foreign affairs creating conditions that led to increasing conflict in the Pacific are but three of many. Hopefully, foreign engagement in the future will begin to create conditions that stabilize the Pacific instead of fanning the flames.


Böge, V. (2001). Conflict Potential and Violent Conflicts in the South Pacific—Options for a Civil Peace Service (C. Lies, Trans.). Working Papers, 2001(1).

Dayant, A. (2019, April 17). Follow the Money: How Foreign Aid Spending Tells of Pacific Priorities. The Interpreter; Lowy Institute.

Doherty, B. (2019, September 24). Pacific Islands Seek $500m to Make Ocean’s Shipping Zero Carbon. The Guardian.

Fiji: The conflict in focus. (n.d.). Conciliation Resources; Conciliation Resources. Retrieved December 15, 2020, from

Firth, S. (2018, June 4). Instability in the Pacific Islands: A Status Report. Lowy Institute.

Homer-Dixon, T. (1994). Environmental Scarcities and Violent Conflict: Evidence from Cases. International Security, 19(1), 5–40.

Huntington, S. (1993). The Clash of Civilizations? Foreign Affairs, 72(3), 22–49.

MacLellan, N. (2014, October 10). Conflict in the Pacific islands: The Climate Dimension. The Interpreter; Lowy Institute.

Marks, E. (2015, February). Speaking Out. Defining Diplomacy; American Foreign Service Association.

Ogashiwa, Y. (2009). Conflicts and Regional Peacebuilding in the Pacific Island Countries: In Search of Good Governance. IPSHU English Research Report Series, 23, 157–172.

Stewart, F. (2011). Horizontal Inequalities as a Cause of Conflict: A Review of CRISE Findings [Background Paper].

Trouble in paradise: How Does Climate Change Affect Pacific Island Nations? (2019, March 14). Climate Reality; The Climate Reality Project.

Wilson, C. (2006). Land and Conflict in the Pacific Region (1.1). Pacific Islands Forum.

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