An attention-grabbing title was published in the local newspaper three months before Bob Hawke and other prominent Pacific leaders met in the Cook Islands to sign a groundbreaking new anti-nuclear accord.
“PACIFIC – A REGION OF ‘PEACE’ – AND BOMBS FOR FRANCE,” blared the headline in the Cook Islands News on Saturday, May 11, 1985.
The French defense minister had shown up in Noumea to declare that his country had no enemies in the Pacific; however, the declaration was met with skepticism due to the fact that France had carried out its 69th nuclear test in French Polynesia just hours earlier.
These heightened fears permeated the region in the months leading up to the significant summit that took place in the Cook Islands in August 1985. At this meeting, the leaders approved a nuclear-free zone.
The Australian PM at that time, Bob Hawke, hailed the negotiations as a “dramatic success” that would send “a clear and unequivocal message to the world”. The treaty left major powers in no doubt about the region’s desire to preserve “the South Pacific as the peaceful region which its name implies”.
But the Treaty of Rarotonga has been in effect for almost 40 years, and the region is still on edge about the prospect of another rise in geopolitical tensions. Critics of the treaty claim that gaps in its coverage are currently being used in order to advance these geopolitical tensions.
“The treaty was really important to a lot of people, especially for grassroots activists,” says Talei Mangioni, a Fijian-Australian board member of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons Australia. Mangioni is a member of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons Australia.
“However, it was significantly watered down. And so, despite the fact that we celebrate it now, what campaigners were saying in the 1980s and what progressive states like Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu were saying at the time was that it wasn’t comprehensive enough.
Mangioni, who is conducting research into the legacy of Nuclear Free as well as Independent Pacific Movement, adds: “That’s what’s left us now with things like Aukus exploiting certain loopholes that have remained in the treaty.”
The Treaty of Rarotonga was discussed at length once more during the annual conference of the Pacific Islands Forum (Pif), which took place in the Cook Islands last week.
The PM of Cook Islands, Mark Brown, suggested that the area “should rediscover and revisit our Rarotonga treaty to ensure that it reflects the concerns of Pacific countries today, and not just what occurred back in 1985.” The Cook Islands were the hosts of the summit.
It is also known as the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty, and it designates a huge region stretching from the western coast of Australia to the coast of Latin America as one in which the parties to the treaty are obligated to prevent the “stationing” of nuclear weapons (although detractors argue that this word was always meant to be purposefully ambiguous).
According to an article that was published in the Cook Islands News on the 7th of August 1985, “The treaty prohibits the use, testing, or stationing of nuclear explosive devices in South Pacific.”
“It does not prohibit countries from transporting nuclear devices through the zone, nor does it prohibit ships that are nuclear-powered or equipped from calling in ports within the area.”
At current time, the countries of Australia, the Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, New Zealand, Niue, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, the Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu are all signatories to this particular treaty.
Once again, a significant number of these countries are concerned about the possibility of the Pacific becoming a battleground for great powers to compete with one another and the likelihood of this rivalry escalating into armed confrontation. Some of those anxieties are fueled by Aukus’ actions.
“We regret that the Aukus agreement… is escalating geopolitical tensions in our region and undermining Pacific-led nuclear-free regionalism,” said the Pacific Elders’ Voice, which is a collection of past leaders that includes Anote Tong, the former president of Kiribati. “We regret that the Aukus agreement… is undermining Pacific-led nuclear-free regionalism.”
As part of the Aukus plan, Australia will make a purchase of at least three nuclear-powered submarines of the Virginia class from the United States in the 2030s. This will take place before Australian-made boats enter service in the 2040s.
In the meantime, the United States and the United Kingdom will increase the number of rotations of nuclear-powered submarines to Australia. This is all part of an effort to prevent China from taking unilateral action against Taiwan or from engaging in destabilizing actions in the South China Sea, which is becoming an increasingly contentious region.
Concerning a significant aspect of Aukus, the Australian government has been diligently working behind the scenes to reassure the leaders of the Pacific nations.
Pat Conroy, the minister for the Pacific in the Australian government, was quoted as saying, “Certainly when I was talking to people about it, I would explain how it was consistent with the Treaty of Rarotonga.”
This view is shared by Donald Rothwell. He points out that the treaty does not cover issues pertaining to nuclear-powered submarines.
“My view is that Aukus is consistent with Australia’s Treaty of Rarotonga obligations,” says Rothwell. “My view is that Australia’s Treaty of Rarotonga obligations are met by Aukus.”
“Pacific states may have reservations with the prospective stationing of nuclear-armed warships from the United States and the United Kingdom in Australian ports under the auspices of Aukus. The treaty prohibits the stationing of such vessels, as opposed to port calls, which is a violation of the terms of the agreement.
When he briefed Pacific leaders during the Pif meetings last week, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese attempted to allay any concerns that may have been related to Aukus. This appears to have prevented any open revolt from occurring.
Albanese argues that the treaty is still “a good document” and that “all of the arrangements that we’ve put in place have been consistent with that”
However, opponents of nuclear power refer to a new aircraft parking apron that is scheduled to be constructed at the Tindal base in the Northern Territory. This apron will have the capacity to house up to six United States B-52 bombers.
In keeping with long-standing policy, the United States government refuses to confirm or deny whether the aircraft on rotation would be armed with nuclear weapons.
“We should delineate between a legalistic interpretation of the Treaty of Rarotonga and the spirit of it,” says Marco de Jong, a Pacific historian living in Aotearoa New Zealand. “We should delineate between a legalistic interpretation of the Treaty of Rarotonga and the spirit of it.”
“The reliance that Australia places on legal loopholes and technicalities is growing increasingly frustrating for the nations of the Pacific.”
International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons , which awarded Nobel Peace Prize for its work, one of the best ways for Australia to reassure the region about its long-term intentions would be for the nation to sign Treaty on Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which is a more recent treaty.
This was a concept that Mr. Albanese had in the past strongly embraced, but it now appears to have stagnated.
One potential issue is that the United States has issued a warning that the TPNW, which contains a blanket ban on enabling anyone to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons, would not allow close friends like Australia to benefit from the safety afforded by the “nuclear umbrella” provided by the United States. This is a potential difficulty.
According to documents that the Guardian was able to get according to freedom of information legislation, the Australian defense department has informed the Labor administration that the TPNW is “internationally divisive” due to the fact that the nuclear weapon states “are all opposed” to it.
However, Mangioni, an activist who is a part of the Youngsolwara Pacific organization, argues that Pacific countries raced to join the TPNW six years ago, reflecting their ongoing concerns about the legacy of nuclear testing. The same attitude prevalent throughout the region served as the impetus for the first Treaty of Rarotonga.
“Nuclear abolitionism is the political stance held by the other Pacific states, in contrast to Australia’s policy of relying on nuclear deterrence.”