Tokelau is a dependent territory of New Zealand comprised of three tropical coral atolls, or ring-shaped islands, situated about halfway between New Zealand and Hawaii. The islands only have a population of about 1,500 people. The nationals of Tokelau are called Tokelauans, most of whom are ethnic Polynesians and speak their own language, Tokelauan. The Polynesians settled there about a thousand years ago, but the islands were discovered by European explorers in the 18th century, who named them the Union Islands.
Europeans and Americans only made rare expeditions to the islands until almost the middle of the 19th century, but missionaries began preaching on the Union Islands in 1845, converting the local population to Christianity. In 1863, the Peruvian “blackbird” slave traders arrived on the islands, who kidnapped nearly all (253) of the able-bodied men to work as laborers, leaving the atolls almost completely depopulated. A lucky few managed to return to the islands later.
Over the years that followed, Polynesian immigrants from other parts of Oceania and European beachcombers began settling on the Union Islands, marrying local women and gradually repopulating the islands. In 1889, the territory was declared a British protectorate, then in 1916 they were annexed by the United Kingdom and became part of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony, and in 1926 New Zealand took over the administration of Tokelau from the British. The Union Islands were renamed the Tokelau Islands in 1946. In 1949, the islands formally became part of New Zealand.
New Zealand gradually granted Tokelau greater independence. Since the 1993 Tokelau Administration Regulations, Tokelau has had its own legislative and parliamentary chamber, a unicameral body called the General Fono, which is elected every three years. However, some are of the view that Tokelau does not enjoy enough independence. Two United Nations-sponsored referendums on self-determination were held in Tokelau in 2006 and 2007, where Tokelauans were asked to decide whether to remain a non-self-governing territory or to become a self-governing state in free association with New Zealand. The results of both referendums were only a few votes short of the majority required to allow Tokelau to become independent. The UN was clearly dissatisfied with these results, and added Tokelau to its list of “Non-Self-Governing Territories” in 2007, with the UN Secretary General at the time, Ban Ki-moon, urging colonial powers “to complete the decolonization process”.
It should be noted that Tokelau does not possess any major natural resources apart from its marine life and fish stocks. Most people living on the islands earn their livelihood from fishing and farming, and also rely on remittances from relatives working in New Zealand. The sale of fishing licenses to foreign countries to allow them to fish in its exclusive economic zone of 200 nautical miles is a major source of government revenue for Tokelau’s budget.
However, this does not generate enough revenue to allow the islands to survive without any economic assistance from New Zealand. That is why many experts believed it would be risky for Tokelau to hold referendums, as it was unclear how the territory would manage without the subsidies it receives from New Zealand. Some are even of the opinion that the aim of these referendums was not so much to gain independence as it was to pressure the government in New Zealand into increasing its budgetary funding to Tokelau for fear of losing the dependent economy. This is a controversial view, but Tokelau achieved just that. Following these referendums, New Zealand was quick to contribute $7 million of the $8.5 million needed to build solar power plants on the atolls, which have been satisfying all of the territory’s electricity needs since 2012 (very little electricity is required, as Tokelau has no major industrial production plants or cold winter heating season).
Since the referendums were held almost fifteen years ago in 2006 and 2007, Tokelau has found a new source of revenue through the Internet, which the territory has access to via the New Zealand’s satellite system. The .tk internet country code top-level domain for Tokelau has become one of the most popular in the world, where users from all over the world can register their domain names for free or at a cost and place ads. By 2013, income from .tk domain names accounted for about 20% of Tokelau’s GDP, and over 30 million websites were registered under this domain name in 2017. Tokelau also generates a certain amount of revenue from exports including commemorative coins, postage stamps, and copra production (dried coconut meat or kernel). However, Tokelau still depends on subsidies from New Zealand, which amount to about $2 million a year.
Nevertheless, the media reported in May 2020 that the current Ulu or head of Tokelau’s government, Kelihiano Kalolo, who is a highly respected politician on the islands, has submitted a proposal to the General Fono, or parliament, to have a new referendum on self-determination held in 2025. There could be three possible outcomes to this referendum: independence, self-governing in free association, or integration with New Zealand. Remaining a dependent territory of New Zealand is not an option in the proposed vote. A date has not yet been set for Tokelau’s General Fono to vote on the proposal, but Kalolo is likely to win overwhelming support for his referendum when it is put forward.
A Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade spokesperson said New Zealand supports Tokelau’s journey towards self-governance, saying that “any decision on if and when there would be a referendum on independence is for Tokelau to determine.”
As it has already been mentioned, Tokelau is still unable to survive without foreign aid. That being the case, gaining independence from New Zealand could potentially be detrimental to Tokelau with a severe reduction in funding from New Zealand. This would imply that the Tokelauan leaders who are in favor of independence are either confident that New Zealand will not reduce its funding, or hope to find someone else willing to provide assistance. Although there is no hard data to quote on this, it should not be forgotten that Oceania is like the entire Asia-Pacific region, in that the region is now one of the arenas where Western countries, including New Zealand and Australia, which still dominate Oceania, go head-to-head with China. Having accumulated vast economic, political and military power over the past decade, China has begun an energetic campaign to increase its influence in countries throughout the Asia-Pacific, replacing its competitors, and the leader of the Western world — the United States — is now considered to be China’s main competitor. China has chosen economic partnership as its weapon of choice in this regional power struggle. In exchange for loyalty, China is investing large sums of money in the economies of underdeveloped countries. Oceania is also on China’s radar. It is also a strategically important region for the United States, Australia and New Zealand, crucial to their own national security. As tensions between the West and the China intensified, China’s activity in Oceania became a cause for more and more concern, and when rumors appeared in the press in 2018 that China was holding talks with Vanuatu about the possibility of setting up a military base there, just 1,750 km off the coast of Australia, real alarm bells began ringing.
New Zealand, Australia and the United States are now struggling to hold onto their positions in Oceania and prevent China from gaining ground there. In the current climate, any region that breaks away from a Western country can offer China the attractive opportunity of gaining an outpost right under the noses of its Western rivals. Tokelau is no exception. It is therefore safe to assume that if New Zealand stops funding Tokelau, the Tokelauans could easily turn to China for subsidies. By the same token, New Zealand is unlikely to deprive Tokelau of its assistance, on the contrary, New Zealand will do everything it can to maintain good relations with the territory, whatever the outcome of the 2025 referendum may be. Finally, New Zealand may try to persuade Tokelau to integrate with it before 2025 by offering to make new investments in the Tokelauan economy. If New Zealand’s offer is not generous enough, it could turn to its allies for help, Australia and the United States, as Tokelau’s future is a common interest they all share.
Proposals like this one to hold a referendum on self-determination do not just appear out of the blue. Kelihiano Kalolo must have been talking about this for a long time, and Western countries have surely had plenty of time to prepare their offers for Tokelau. Whether or not this was a coincidence remains unknown, but in January 2020 the media reported that the French company Alcatel Submarine Networks (ASN) won a contract to lay a subsea cable that will bring modern high-speed internet to Tokelau, which will significantly enhance its IT capabilities. The cable will run along the floor of the Pacific Ocean, connecting Tokelau with New Zealand, Australia and the United States, and will be operated by Teletok, a local government-owned telecommunications company operating in Tokelau. The project will of course receive funding from the government of New Zealand.
It is interesting that a French company, ASN, was awarded the contract to lay the subsea cable, as IT and telecommunications are now another arena where the West and China are competing against each other. The United States banned American corporations from doing business with the Chinese companies Huawei and ZTE in 2019, accusing them of spying for the Chinese intelligence services, and forced its allies to do the same, including Australia and New Zealand. As a result, New Zealand has banned Chinese telecoms from supplying equipment for the country’s 5G network. You could say that the world of IT is now divided into Western and Chinese camps. While New Zealand would have once considered which company offered the most attractive terms when choosing who should lay a cable along the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, the choice of French company ASN may be down to a belief that it is now crucial to link Tokelau to the Western side of the world’s IT divide. Let’s not forget that France also has a vast amount of overseas territories in Oceania that it would not like to lose, so France is therefore likely to side with the United States, Australia and New Zealand in the fight for Oceania.
With China’s shadow looming on the horizon, it seems like the perfect time for Tokelau and territories with a similar status to make the most of the situation and profit from the anxieties of their Western partners.
Sofia Pale, PhD in History, Researcher at the Center for Southeast Asia, Australia and Oceania at the Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.