Detonating the South Pacific: Beaches, Bombs and the Movement for Denuclearisation

Faced with the spectre of potential armed conflict haunting the Korean peninsula, the South Pacific hardly seems to offer a definitive solution.

Yet this seeming backwater of quiet lagoons and isolated atolls yields a far deeper history, a profound yet often overlooked role of restraint within a deteriorating international stage refusing to back down from increased militarisation. It seems that here, a movement stemming back to the mid-to-late twentieth century has been fighting to push the world away from the brink of destruction.

The first nuclear tests at Bikini Atoll in 1946, after all, shook this otherwise quiet corner of this world into energetic reaction.

While 2017 has seen the resurfacing of the chronic nuclear question plaguing international affairs, it also brings forth a hopeful reminder — the 30th anniversary of New Zealand’s stringent nuclear-free foreign policy. This reality, beyond being highly impressive for a nation closely tied both economically and militarily to Western nuclear powers such as the United States and the United Kingdom, proves quite candidly a crucial point; denuclearisation can, and should, be actively practiced by a developed nation fully integrated into a wider international community.

Of course, this may not seem to be any particular achievement; after all, true diplomacy is conducted with a gracious smile and a firm handshake rather than the detonation of a nuclear warhead in the Sea of Japan. Yet one would be forgiven to think of the latter as the preferred approach of modern superpowers, locked in a contest of vain egos and brinkmanship, with no side willing to back down from comparing the size of their ballistic missiles. ‘Atomic diplomacy’, a term coined by Gar Alperovitz in his damning 1965 treatise on the American bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, finds no better environment to assert itself than the world today, arguably even more haunted by the prospect of an imminent nuclear war.

Within these immense international players, where could the South Pacific possibly fit in? While one could pessimistically dismiss the anti-nuclear stance of New Zealand and its South Pacific backyard as a mere fly in the eyes of nuclear superpowers, denuclearisation has not been completely without success; as much as it may be clichéd to draw analogies with the tale of David and Goliath, the protest of New Zealand against the proliferation of nuclear weaponry and testing has proved that a small nation can influence the approach of larger countries towards the deployment of such weapons of mass destruction. The real question is how much this stance still holds weight within the immensely changing dynamics of international relations.

History of Nuclear Testing in the South Pacific

The South Pacific has long been the testing zone of American, British and French nuclear weaponry, starting with the aforementioned Bikini Atoll tests of 1946, before being followed by numerous tests of increasing scale in the Marshall Islands, French Polynesia as well as Christmas Island (Kiribati), among others; the most immediate consequence of such tests for the region was widespread damage as a result of radioactive fallout, namely manifesting in the form of cancer.

            As a result, the South Pacific tests revealed perhaps even better than Hiroshima or Nagasaki not merely the explosive force of nuclear detonation, but the long-term misery, death and destruction of nuclear weaponry; protests formed by local populations within the immediate area gained a footing in more developed nations of the region, namely New Zealand and Australia. While it may constitute a rather Western-centric conclusion, one must accept that without finding support within such nations, the cry for denuclearisation would not have expanded beyond the immediately affected peoples.

New Zealand and the Anti-Nuclear Programme

There is ultimately no denying that New Zealand has been an epicentre for the movement against nuclear proliferation, especially during the years of nuclear testing in the second half of the twentieth century; it is in my contention that it is this role, which New Zealand continues to play to this day, that will prove crucial to mediating international tensions and conflicts involving the nuclear question.

            Admittedly, New Zealand has to a certain extent, suffered for its anti-nuclear stance; the nation’s first, and arguably only state-sponsored ‘terrorist’ attack, the 1985 bombing of the Rainbow Warrior by DSGE agents in Auckland demonstrates the extent to which the New Zealand stance put the nation greatly out of favour with international powers like France, such that foreign governments were willing to use reactionary violence against opponents of their nuclear agenda. Furthermore, New Zealand was consequently cut out of the tri-nation defence agreement of ANZUS, involving America, New Zealand and the United States; for the sake of denuclearisation, New Zealand was consequently willing to risk foreign relations in order to take a moral stance against the use of nuclear weaponry.

            Yet as much as it may seem to have disadvantaged itself, New Zealand, along with its active support for a nuclear-free South Pacific, has actually been strengthening its position within the wider international community in pushing against mass militarisation, a symbolic stance advocating for communication and diplomacy rather than open atomic deterrence. Certainly, the nature of relationships between the United States and New Zealand has been changed and challenged by closer defence ties, with the visit of the USS Sampson in late 2016 brining about an end to the thirty years absence of American Navy vessels in New Zealand waters as a result of New Zealand’s anti-nuclear foreign policy. Furthermore, the respective changes in government, with the ascension of the Trump administration in the United States and the new Labour government under Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand, have inevitably altered the approaches to foreign policy pursued by both nations. Nonetheless, the status quo of denuclearisation remains unchanged in New Zealand; Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern affirmed in 2017 that her government would continue to maintain an anti-nuclear policy, a stance all the more important in this current moment of time.

Beyond New Zealand, efforts of denuclearisation inspired by the collective experiences of the South Pacific in facing atomic detonation remain well-supported and well-recognised for their contributions to international affairs, peace and stability; in September 2017, the Norwegian Nobel Committee presented the Nobel Peace Prize to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), a coalition founded in Australia, in recognition of its efforts at seeking alternatives to nuclear deterrence.

All in all, it seems the strength of denuclearisation in the South Pacific is reasonably without doubt; the real challenge ultimately comes not from within, but from beyond, with the changing nature of international affairs bringing the movement into greater light

Preliminary Conclusions

As crucial and as successful as the anti-nuclear movement of the South Pacific region may be, one cannot remain complacent. The world has immensely rewritten itself in far greater complexities ever since the era of Bikini Atoll or the Rainbow Warrior; we have emerged into an era beyond the factionalism of the Cold War and rather focused into multipolar power blocks, unrestrained by tenuous alliances or agreements, where even the slightest spark can ignite into a greater regional or international crisis. These are uncertain, unstable and often frightening times for the millions living under the shadow of nuclear warheads, held in the hands of vain and paranoid men.

            Yet it would be foolish to despair. The South Pacific, as much of a minnow in international affairs as it may seem to be, has proven that there remains a very real alternative to nuclear launch codes and ballistic missiles; its past and present role as an advocate for disarmament sets up the perfect political landscape for its role as a mediator between nuclear powers, a third party that had previously experienced the horrors and consequences of atomic testing and weaponry.

One should not, of course, disregard the challenges that lie ahead; even the most developed nations of the South Pacific, such as New Zealand and Australia, can hardly lay claim to immense economic or political authority, no matter how integrated it may be into a greater global community. In addition, it has unfortunately been noted on more than one occasion that the most powerful politicians of our day are hardly predisposed to listen to reason past their own agenda; the military-industrial complex maintains its hold on the nature of American military policy, while renegade powers such as North Korea, dangerously ambitious and constantly pushed into a corner by United Nations sanctions, have been doggedly pursuing nuclear programs, spiting international regulations and calls for mediation.

Notwithstanding this reality, the South Pacific remains unfazed, no matter how quiet its voices may seem; like every revolution, the movement drives itself from below. There has never been a more relevant time for a recognition of what nations like New Zealand are trying to achieve against the context of nuclear threat; as long as the calls for denuclearisation remain lively and active, the movement must, and will, snowball into a greater conglomeration of international pressure against the vicious cycle of atomic diplomacy, which has cast its ugly shadow over the achievements of humanity for far too long.   

Tiger Shen is a freshman studying History at Oxford University. He is the blogger for Oceania Affairs. 

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