Story: South Pacific economic relations

Page 1. Pacific neighbours

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To New Zealand’s north, forming a 6,000-kilometre ‘coral curtain’, are a series of islands and island groups. They include the large main island of Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, the Cook Islands, French Polynesia and many smaller groups.

Parts of the Pacific 

The Pacific Islands are divided into three main groups based roughly on the types of people living in them. Micronesia (Greek for ‘small islands’) is made up of hundreds of mostly tiny islands, ranging from Kiribati in the south to the US territory of Wake Island in the north. Polynesia (‘many islands’) forms a giant triangle bounded by New Zealand, Hawaii and Rapa Nui (Easter Island), and includes the Cook Islands, Samoa, Tonga, Niue and French Polynesia. Melanesia (‘islands of black-skinned people’) extends from Fiji through Papua New Guinea to the easternmost islands of Indonesia. 

New Zealand has had a variety of economic relations with these island countries since the start of European contact. In the early 19th century whalers, traders and missionaries ranged back and forth between the island groups and northern New Zealand. From the 1850s New Zealand-based missionaries were very active in Vanuatu (then called New Hebrides). New Zealand got most of its sugar from Fiji from the 1870s to the 1920s, and most of its phosphate fertiliser from Nauru and Banaba from the 1900s to the 1980s. From the 1970s the Pacific has provided a market for New Zealand meat exports and has absorbed over half of New Zealand’s overseas aid.

Governing the islands

Most island groups had come under direct European rule by 1900, but New Zealand gained control over the British-ruled Cook Islands and Niue in 1901. Western Samoa was captured from Germany in 1914 and was administered by New Zealand under a League of Nations mandate. The British Tokelau group (then known as the Union Islands) was administered by New Zealand from 1925 and annexed in 1948. Economically, the most important islands to New Zealand in the early 20th century were Nauru and Banaba (Ocean Island), which supplied rock phosphate for making superphosphate fertiliser.

Western Samoa became independent in 1962, but the other New Zealand territories remained associated with New Zealand (which means they are self-governing, but their citizens are also citizens of New Zealand). Their main economic links were not trade but labour migration, aid and remittances (money sent home by migrants living and working in New Zealand).

Trouble in Melanesia

From the 1980s the New Zealand government was concerned at military coups, violent protest and other political developments in Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Fiji. This triggered an increase in aid to those countries, and migration schemes were introduced. Trade relations remained very limited.

How to cite this page:

Geoff Bertram, 'South Pacific economic relations - Pacific neighbours', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 April 2024)

Story by Geoff Bertram, published 11 Mar 2010