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The Contemporary Pacific 12.2 (2000) 307-317

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Terence Wesley-Smith


Anthony Giddens has noted that talk about globalization "has come from nowhere to be almost everywhere" in recent years (1999, 1). This is hardly surprising considering the profound effects of the transnational flows of capital, people, and ideas at the heart of the globalization process. Global flows increasingly determine economic conditions for individuals and communities everywhere, as well as shape the contours of their social and political lives. This collection examines some important implications of globalization in the Pacific Islands, with particular reference to its Asian dimensions. It does so through a case study of the Republic of Palau which provides a striking microcosm of some of the economic, cultural, social, and political dynamics that increasingly characterize the contemporary era in the Pacific and elsewhere.

Palau is a small Micronesian island state with a total population of about 17,000. Before independence in 1994 it was administered by the United States as the last remnant of the United Nations Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands. It is also a former colony of Japan (1914-1944) and is now inundated by investment, tourists, and migrant workers from Asia. As many as 70,000 tourists, mostly from Japan and Taiwan, pass through these islands each year, catered for by a largely Asian owned and operated industry. Some 13,000 indigenous Palauans host a foreign workforce of at least 4,000 temporary residents (chiefly from the Philippines, but also from Taiwan and Bangladesh). At the same time, an estimated 7,000 Palauans live in other Pacific islands and the United States. Confounding a popular image of an island culture isolated in time and space, Palau is entangled in a broad web of economic, social, and cultural forces stretching to Tokyo, Taipei, Guam, Manila, Honolulu, Washington DC, and beyond. [End Page 307]

Palau is not the only place in the Pacific being remade by capital, people, and ideas cascading across borders. Although earlier financial and human flows from Europe, Asia, and North America radically transformed the cultural and economic landscapes of island places, the globalizing trends of recent years are distinctive in several respects. In the first place, new forms of capital have become important in the region, although much economic activity continues to focus on export agriculture and the extraction of natural resources. Some island nations have become temporary sites for highly mobile manufacturing industries that roam the globe in search of cheap sources of labor. The largest private employer in Samoa is now Yasaki, a Japanese company that uses largely female labor to assemble automobile wiring harnesses for export to Australia. Factories in Fiji, the Northern Marianas, and Palau assemble garments for a global industry that epitomizes the current era of geographically dispersed, complex systems of "flexible production." These companies are often attracted to the region by favorable tax regimes, government subsidies, or preferential access to export markets, as well as the prospect of low labor costs. Several Pacific places--most notably Guam, the Northern Marianas, and Tahiti--have recently joined Hawai'i as significant destinations in the global tourist industry, now one of the largest industries in the world.

Migrant labor plays a significant role in both the garment and tourist industries in the Pacific. In Fiji, some of the garment factory labor is imported on contract from China, while in the Northern Marianas and Palau almost all of the workers come from the Philippines and other parts of Asia. Similarly, in several of the prime tourist destinations in the region --Hawai'i, Guam, and Saipan--as well as in Palau, tourist facilities are largely staffed by permanent or temporary migrants from elsewhere. The presence of these workers has profound social, cultural, and political implications for host communities.

The pace of change under the influence of these new types of capital also distinguishes the present era from earlier ones, dominated in most parts of the region by plantation capital. In some places, the tourist industry has expanded at an extremely rapid rate. For example, the number of tourists visiting the Northern Marianas annually rose fourfold...


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