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Pacific Islands that are still colonized

May 25, 2024

Six Pacific territories are still partially governed by former colonizing powers: US, UK, New Zealand and France. Riots in Caledonia have brought these Islands and their quest for independence into the spotlight.

View of a town in New Caledonia at night.
Indigenous communities in New Caledonia, who have wanted independence for a long time, worry that the new law could weaken their electoral influence.Image: Olivia Iloa via REUTERS

In the past two weeks, New Caledonia, a French territory in the Pacific Ocean, has been shaken by riots triggered by a controversial electoral reform that sought to give voting rights to new residents of the islands. The move has angered indigenous communities who feel it has instantly turned them into a minority in their own land.

France sent troops to quell the violence in the territory, where seven people have been killed and hundreds more wounded. Visiting New Caledonia, President Emmanuel Macron said on Thursday that the tensions were an "unprecedented insurrection movement" that no one saw coming.

But  French troops have previously been deployed to this semi-autonomous Pacific Island with a decades-old pro-independence movement. In 1980, French soldiers were ordered to suppress a pro-independence uprising that left dozens dead.

New Caledonia is one of thesix Pacific Non-Self-Governing Territories: Regions recognized by the United Nations as not having attained full self-governance, with some of their political and economic affairs still overseen by a foreign power. These territories in the Pacific Ocean, effectively still colonies, are typically small islands or archipelagos with relatively small populations. In some of them, tensions remain high.

China has sought to increase its military and economic presence in South Pacific countries like Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands. French officials are concernedthat an independent New Caledonia might come under China's sway. The mounting competition for influence in the region between China, the US, and other powers has brought these oft-forgotten islands into the spotlight.

Here is what you need to know about these territories and their relationships with their metropolitan powers:

New Caledonia and French Polynesia 

New Caledonia, with a population of around 270,000, holds the world's fifth-largest reserves of nickel, a metal increasingly used for electric car batteries. Last year, the Pacific territory accounted for about 6% of global output, making it the world’s third-biggest producer of nickel.

The government in New Caledonia has held multiple referendums on independence in the past few decades, most recently in 2021. Although the vote favored remaining part of France, pro-independence parties boycotted the vote, and indigenous protesters have decried the increasing inequality between their communities and people of European descent.

French Polynesia, the other large Pacific territory still owned by France, is known for its vibrant tourism industry and strategic location in the South Pacific. The territory faces environmental issues such as rising sea levels and cyclones, which impact its tourism-dependent economy. The local government retains partial political autonomy, with responsibility for policies including health care, primary and secondary education, and the environment.

However, it is heavily reliant on French economic aid, and Paris retains control over issues such as higher education and defense policy. Pro-independence parties in the archipelago have been active for decades, and last year one of these, Tavini Huiraatira, won the majority in the French Polynesian parliament.

A man with his back to the camera, facing a plain with a large flag in sight.
Guam serves as an important stopover for US forces heading to Asia and the western PacificImage: Ahn Young-joon/AP/picture alliance

Guam and American Samoa 

Guam is a strategically significant U.S. territory in the Pacific, hosting three key military bases crucial for American operations in the Asia-Pacific region. Guam's economy is dependent on tourism and the military, with environmental degradation and infrastructure challenges exacerbated by natural disasters like typhoons.

The United States has another unincorporated territory in the Pacific: American Samoa, whose economy relies on tuna fishing and processing. American Samoa also has special cultural rights and selective exemptions from federal law.

Residents of Guam are U.S. citizens, while residents of American Samoa are U.S. nationals but not citizens. As such, Guamanians can vote in federal elections if they move to a U.S. state and meet residency requirements, but they cannot vote in presidential elections while residing in Guam. American Samoans, on the other hand, cannot vote in federal elections even if they move to a U.S. state because they are not U.S. citizens. The territories benefit from U.S. federal funding but maintain cultural and administrative autonomy.


Tokelau is a dependent territory of New Zealand consisting of three atolls. Beside a relatively small fishing industry, the territory has limited economic power but is important for its unique culture and history, which includes a distinct Polynesian heritage. Tokelau has a high degree of autonomy but relies on New Zealand for economic support and defense. Efforts to move towards self-determination have been ongoing, with referendums on greater autonomy held in 2006.

But Tokelau faces severe environmental challenges, including rising sea levels and limited natural resources. Economic opportunities are scarce, leading many islanders to favor aid from New Zealand to the benefits of self-determination.

Aerial picture of Atafu Atoll in Tokelau
With a population of approximately 1,500, the Tokelau atolls are dependent on its marine resources for their livelihoodImage: U.I.G./Bildagentur-online/picture alliance

Pitcairn Islands 

The Pitcairn Islands, one of the smallest British Overseas Territories, have limited economic significance but hold historical importance as the home of the descendants of the HMS Bounty mutineers. These mutineers famously staged a rebellion against their ship's captain in 1789. With a population of only around fifty, the islands rely heavily on aid from the UK and have a small, autonomous local government.

Panoramic aerial of Pitcairn island
Located in the central Pacific Ocean, the Pitcairn Islands boast stunningly clear watersImage: Michael Runkel/robertharding/picture alliance