Occupy APEC with Aloha

christine-ahn-fpif“The time has come for us to voice our rage,” the Hawaiian artist Makana sang as he gently strummed his slack-key guitar. “Against the ones who’ve trapped us in a cage, to steal from us the value of our wage.”

Makana wasn’t serenading the Occupy movement; rather his audience included over a dozen of the world’s most powerful leaders, including President Obama and China’s Premier Hu Jintao, at the world’s most secure, policed, and fortified event: the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) dinner in Hawaii.

The exclusive dinner was held at the Hale Koa hotel, the Defense Department’s 72-acre facility that was further buttressed by an additional three miles of fencing just for APEC. In preparation for the summit, Honolulu budgeted $44 million — including $18 million for police and $10 million for “contingency expenses,” such as $700,000 in non-lethal weapons, including 25,000 pepper spray projectiles, 18,000 bean bags, and 3,000 taser cartridges.

Donning a white tee with the words “Occupy with Aloha” under his chic blazer, Makana sang “We Are the Many,” his new release inspired by the Occupy movement and directed to the 1 percent — for a full 45 minutes. As the powerful dined, Makana transmitted the message: “We’ll occupy the streets, we’ll occupy the courts, we’ll occupy the offices of you, till you do the bidding of the many, not the few.”

Makana, however, wasn’t the only one voicing his outrage during the APEC summit. As government and corporate leaders from 21 Asia-Pacific economies plotted how to expand a global free trade agenda, civil society activists from throughout the Asia Pacific gathered across town at the Moana Nui (the Great Pacific Ocean) conference to discuss pressing issues facing people and the planet, such as climate change, income inequality, and militarization of the region.

Organized by Pua Mohala I Ka Po and the International Forum on Globalization (IFG), scholars, activists, policy analysts, lawyers, labor union leaders, practitioners, and artists traveled from Guam, Marshall Islands, Palau, Tonga, Fiji, Micronesia, New Zealand, Australia, Rapa Nui, Samoa, Japan, Siberia, Okinawa, Philippines, South Korea, Vanuatu, and the United States. In contrast to the high-security, exclusive venue of the APEC summit, Moana Nui was an open gathering where critical analyses were shared, culture and sustainability celebrated, and alternatives to the APEC agenda explored. Together with their Hawaiian hosts, Moana Nui participants discussed challenges facing the region and strategies for building strong local and sustainable economies.

APEC Agenda: Trade Liberalization and Militarism

During the APEC summit, the Obama administration worked to advance the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a new free trade agreement that includes nine countries—Brunei, Chile, New Zealand, Singapore, Australia, Malaysia, Peru, Vietnam, and the United States—with Japan, Canada, and Mexico possibly joining.

Also during the summit, President Obama conveyed some harsh words to China that it must “play by the rules” and act more “grown up” since it now occupies a more globally influential role. Rather than point to the offshoring of the American manufacturing base by U.S. corporations facilitated by free trade agreements, Obama blamed America’s job loss on China’s low currency, to which Hu retorted back that adjusting the yuan would not help America’s jobs crisis.

What’s significant is what preceded and then followed Obama’s China bashing. Ahead of the summit, both State Secretary Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta outlined the United States’ expanded role in the Asia-Pacific. In “America’s Pacific Century,” an article in Foreign Affairs, Secretary Clinton writes that the United States will “substantially increase investment—diplomatic, economic, strategic and otherwise—in the Asia-Pacific region.” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta also echoed Clinton on his last trip to Asia, where he promised greater U.S. military presence throughout the Asia-Pacific—that is, more than the 300-plus U.S. bases that have already been there for over half a century.

After APEC, President Obama visited Australia to announce the arrival of 250 U.S. marines to northern Australia next year, with the eventual buildup to reach 2,500. “The goal, though administration officials are loath to say it publicly,” writes Mark Landler of the New York Times, “is to assemble a coalition to counterbalance China’s growing power.” Although Washington is posing China as a military threat, the reality is that in 2010, the United States spent $720 billion on its military, compared with China’s $116 billion, and it’s the United States that has hundreds of bases in the Asia-Pacific, whereas China has none.

Moana Nui: The Alternative to APEC

Moana Nui brought together several social movements—the indigenous and native communities fighting for sovereignty with activists working to stop corporate globalization and militarism. It was significant to be gathering in Hawai’i, a once-sovereign nation whose Queen Lili’uokalani was overthrown by American gunboat “diplomacy” in 1893. Moana Nui opened with a daylong conversation among indigenous and native communities from throughout the Pacific. This was an important reminder of the United States’ long history of stealing indigenous peoples’ lands, without treaties, without democratic process. Moana Nui participants also reframed the Pacific in aquatic terms as the “liquid continent” instead of the continental approach used by hegemonic powers.

Their voices were soon joined by those who have been organizing and resisting against the onslaught of trade liberalization and militarization, the new and more subtle face of colonialism. Moana Nui participants shared how transnational corporations, empowered by free trade and structural adjustment policies, have destroyed local economies, cultural properties, natural resources, and ultimately the sovereignty and self-sufficiency of communities. Jane Kelsey, Professor of Law at the University of Auckland, warned that the TPP will further impact domestic policy and regulation and “give more ammunition to corporations to challenge governments,” by granting foreign investors stronger intellectual property rights and further facilitating corporate global supply chains.

The corporate-led free trade agenda, however, needs the military to secure its profits. Kyle Kajihiro of Hawaii Peace and Justice reminded the audience of Thomas Friedman’s classic quote, “The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist—McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies is called the United States Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.” The military has gone hand-in-hand with free trade by forcing open new markets for investment and new natural resources for exploitation (let’s not forget Iraq). Although it may allow for the safe and secure transport of vital natural resources such as oil and natural gas, the military is there to project force, a lethal force that could intervene militarily if U.S. interests were compromised.

This was best exemplified by an example shared by China scholar Dale Wen, who explained how China has been liquidating its rare earth minerals, which account for 30 percent of the world’s reserves but 95 percent of the world’s production. Recognizing the urgency of preserving these precious rare earth minerals, China instituted an export ban, which didn’t fly with U.S. corporations who had bought these minerals for “dirt cheap.” The United States first sent veiled military threats to China and then pursued legal action through the WTO, which ultimately forced China to continue to extract and sell to U.S. companies. “We are squandering all these metals,” said Wen, “which are precious for our future sustainability.”

Many scholars and activists at Moana Nui deconstructed the geopolitics driving the rising tensions between Washington and Beijing. Joseph Gerson of the American Friends Service Committee pointed to the intense military buildup in the South China Sea, where there is tremendous oil, natural gas, and minerals (an estimated 61 billion barrels of oil and gas, and 54 billion barrels yet to be discovered), making it a “choke point for East Asian economies.” Bruce Gagnon of Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space says the U.S. missile defense system encircling Russia and China with forward deployment can signal to the United States’ historic Cold War enemies that the interruption of the free flow of commerce, or any action counter to U.S. interests, will be met with military force. “China imports 80 percent of their oil on ships. If the Pentagon can choke off China’s ability to transport these vital resources, then the U.S. would hold the keys to China’s economic engine.”

What was clear during Moana Nui was that the peoples of the Asia-Pacific refuse to fall victim to the growing arms race between the United States and China. Echoing a proverb widely known in the Pacific, Gerson warned, “When the elephants are battling or making love, it’s the ants that get squashed.” Activists from Guam and Okinawa shared how the decades-long presence of U.S. military bases had destroyed their livelihoods, culture, and sovereignty, but also how their organizing has led to victories, such as delaying the transfer of 8,000 U.S. marines from Okinawa to Guam, and mass protests that brought nearly 100,000 Okinawans to the streets to protest the transfer of U.S. bases within Okinawa.

The best analysis of the link between militarism and globalization, however, was done Aloha style, through a fashion show called “Passionista’s Resisting: Sistahs and Braddahs Uniting to Un-dress Globalization and Militarization.” Organized by Hawaii’s Women’s Voices Women Speak, the popular education event showcased costumes such as “Occupied Bride,” a white bridal gown with “chicken wire stretched into barbed wire to represent the ways in which her body and the earth she lives on has been bound along the military fence-line with toxins, contaminants and unexploded ordinances.” The costume “Unko Spam” outlines the origins of the militarized meat, which was introduced during World War II to Hawai’i, and how the peoples of Hawaii, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands “consume the most Spam per capita.” In another costume called “Military Straight Jacket,” designed by an Army reservist who had since been deployed to Afghanistan, the issue of the economic promise of joining the military was explored. Of the 70,026 military recruits in 2010, 1,111 came from U.S. territories, such as Micronesia, Guam, Puerto Rico, and Virgin Islands. “The promise of a green card and citizenship is what commonly attracts Asia-Pacific migrants to join the military because to be a U.S. citizen means they can access health care, higher education, and a decent standard of living for their families.”

Energy, Land and Sovereignty

Richard Heinberg, the author of The End of Growth, gave a sobering reminder of how we are at the end of the period of cheap oil, which has grave implications for global food prices and therefore rates of hunger worldwide. UC Berkeley agroecologist Albie Miles clearly outlined the ways that trade liberalization and the restructuring of third-world agricultural economies under IMF and World Bank policies have served to undermine domestic agriculture and consumption, leading to the food price crisis of 2008 and the ensuing food riots worldwide. Miles points to ecologically based agriculture, and investment in the next generation of organic farmers, as a key strategy for sustainable food production, good livelihoods, and the health and well-being of the planet.

The country in the Asia-Pacific that has most wholeheartedly embraced trade liberalization is South Korea, leading to the systematic death of Korean farmers. Once an independent and self-sufficient country, in South Korea’s rush to development, it has become a rapidly industrialized country that does not have territorial control over the critical resources it depends upon to sustain its development and economy: food, fuel, and raw materials. Its rush to sign free trade agreements, like the one recently signed with the United States, will displace 45 percent of Korean farmers, who will be unable to “compete” with U.S. agribusinesses subsidized to the tune of billions. To compensate for its rapidly disappearing farmer population and food production base, South Korean chaebols, aided by Seoul, have been among the leaders engaging in the neocolonial land grabs throughout the global south. The South Korean government has been justifying its military buildup, such as the naval base now being constructed on Jeju Island, as a means to “secure” the safe transport of these imports. The irony of justifying the construction of the naval base on Jeju Island in the name of national security is not lost on Gangjeong farmers and sea divers, whose ancient community and traditional livelihoods will be destroyed.

The final sessions of Moana Nui carried a clear message: the only way to address these challenges to sovereignty is to fundamentally roll back the conditions and laws imposed by FTAs, the WTO, and structural adjustment. As Walden Bello put it, “We need to de-globalize economies instead of being subordinated to free trade and global markets if we want to achieve food security, human livelihoods and ecological sustainability.”

The final declaration that emerged out of Moana Nui united the struggles of those who traveled across the great Pacific Ocean. “We invoke our rights to free, prior and informed consent. We choose cooperative trans-Pacific dialogue, action, advocacy, and solidarity between and amongst the peoples of the Pacific, rooted in traditional cultural practices and wisdom.”

The declaration also included a Native Hawaiian prophesy which echoes the principles of the Occupy movement: E iho ana o luna, E pi’i ana o lalo, E hui ana na moku, E ku ana ka paia. “That which is above shall be brought down, that which is below shall rise up, the islands shall unite, the walls of our foundation shall stand.” E mau ke ea o ka aina i ka pono. “Forever we will uphold the life and sovereignty of the land in righteousness.”

Christine Ahn is a policy and research analyst with the Global Fund for Women and a Foreign Policy In Focus columnist.