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Sleepers Awake1: The changing profile of the Pacific Islands

by Kyle Hargraves

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Once upon a time, the southern Pacific was deemed the province of Australia and New Zealand with regard to cultural and educational exchanges and, of course, aid. Yet aid to Fiji from China (i.e., the PRC) can be traced to 19752 Then there is a general anxiety displayed by the press and the electorate in regard to the PRC, from 5G communications equipment to influence on NZ universities and general meddling. It is to be anticipated that all countries endeavour to promote their interests with their resources and capacity differing across differing countries. The scale of operations by the PRC may be new but the behaviour itself is not new with regard to influence upon its neighbours.

The State of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) At the beginning of February 2021 Henry Puna, from the Cook Islands, was elected by one vote to lead the PIF for the next five years. The Micronesian representatives, believing that the office ought to be rotated through the region, deemed a representative from the Micronesian sector ought to have been designated as head of the forum. The result, as it was this time last year, caused Palau, Nauru, Marshall Islands, Kiribati and the Federated States of Micronesia to withdraw their membership of the forum. A detailed explanation would take this briefing too far afield although one might conjecture a Micronesian organisation developing; keeping in mind that Taiwan is recognised by the Marshall Islands. However, over 2021 to the present, there has been some cooling of the heals and a general acceptance that the forum ought to be given a second chance. Nevertheless, the forum appears fragile and prone to the idiosyncrasies of the members.

The liaison that the PRC has with Fiji has been established more on mutual regard for respective autonomy than for trade per se or economic advantages. The relationship serves as an illustration of what Beijing regards as a desirable bilateral relationship and the advantages for Fiji in “going along”, as it were, are all too obvious. Appealing to history, it is clear that the Fijian Chiefs have no inclination to entertain a parliament of predominantly Indian entrepreneurs as the coups of 1988 and 2006 attest. Given the choice, Fiji would prefer to be expelled from the Commonwealth than to conduct itself as a model democracy and the interests from the PRC cannot be attributed to (the relatively small volumes of) trade alone.

Taiwan The matter of some of the Islands recognising Taiwan is also of significance and there have been competitive instances over aid to particular members in order to solidify diplomatic relations. Yet, the decision by Nicaragua to discontinue relations with Taiwan3, on their current understanding, is likely to become a future trend with Taiwan being unable to maintain a foreign policy into the future. In other words, the trend by the third world towards the PRC is more likely rather than less likely.

As to the scale of the discussion the twenty million (US$) project of completely refurbishing the international airport in Samoa by the PRC was completed in 2018. Thus, we have the context to consider diplomatic developments between the Salomon Islands and the PRC although the upgrade of the ports in Samoa, by the PRC, has been suspended by the current Samoan government.

During September 2019 the prime minister of the Solomon Islands announced that the Islands would end its relationship of 36 years with Taiwan and recognise Beijing. Prime minister Sogavare received assurances of aid and significant infrastructure during a visit to Beijing a few weeks afterwards. The PRC also undertook to ‘revive’ the Gold Ridge gold mine. In short, there is nothing new in regard to cheque book diplomacy for which the PRC is most adapt.

Towards the end of November 2021, Sogavare requested peace-keeping assistance from Australia and New Zealand to suppress looting and arson etc. (principally in Chinatown) from the inhabitants of Malaita; an island that wishes to maintain its liaison with Taiwan. To this end the agreement alters the complexion of the politics of the Solomon Island because at the very least the agreement, in the context of Fiji, will (1) assure Sogavare’s governance for the medium term and will also (2) render future requests for peace keeping from other countries as unnecessary. The memorandum between the Solomon Island and the PRC that was leaked on or about the 24th of March ought to have surprised no one but the contrary is the case! The conditions for such an initiative have been in place since September 2019.

Consequences of the (new) Diplomatic Arrangement One only has to follow the numerous commentaries to identify the propaganda. On the one hand the arrangement endorses the decline in influence of the USA in the greater Asian region. This aspect was recognised, rather belatedly, by Obama and his eventual (but failed) “pivot to Asia” strategy. Even Forbes4 admitted the withdrawal of the USA from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (by Trump in January 2017) as a blunder. The Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) which is a free trade agreement across the Pacific including Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, New Zealand, Singapore and (recently) Vietnam is intended to severe in its place and it is likely that the PRC will bid to join.

On the other hand, the PRC has obtained a trophy for its future political and economic interests. The event is not to be considered as a creeping ‘Sudetenland’5 but as another instance of the upward trajectory of the PRC within the Pacific region. There is no military component but there is most certainly a public and international diplomatic component to the arrangement; to say nothing of the expectation of aid in the future.

From an economic and military perspective, the location of the Solomon Islands cannot be over-emphasised. However, it is the latent military opportunities for the PRC that has set the cat among the pigeons. The perennial assumption (and mistake) by the West is to offer conjectures in terms of what a Western power is likely to do. The evidence is contrary to the predictions6 because the only base that China operates is in Djibouti (Horn of Africa). The USA, by contrast and hence the volatile presumptions, operates 750 bases in 80 countries; a list too long to include for this article!

Nothing remains static in international politics in particular. The PRC’s President Xi made it clear7 when becoming General Secretary in 2012 that an objective of the PRC was to establish strong diplomatic relations in the Pacific. The relationship with the Solomon Island (or any other country in the region) ought to have been anticipated and not met with surprise. The West, with regard to a previous article by yours truly, has a timeline for planning in phase with the election cycle whereas the PRC has a very long term perspective8 and the attendant myopia of the West tends to effect states of amnesia.

Over the next three decades or so the PRC may well pursue initiatives that it created for Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Sir Lanka (Hambantota Port), Pakistan (Gwadar Port) and Cambodia (Ream Naval Base) but not in the short term; i.e this decade. It is not how the PRC plays the game. The policies of the WTO and the characteristics of globalisation (contrary to the USA these days) are embraced by the PRC. The reaction to the diplomatic initiative has been strong, particularly from Australia but it ought to be kept in mind that the Liberal government of Morrison is overtly pro the USA. It was less the case for the former Liberal prime minister Malcolm Turnbull. Forget old style Leninism. Deng Xiaoping succeeded Mao (unintentionally) and changed the direction of the PRC. Even semi-officially the commercial policy of the PRC is “capitalism with socialistic tendencies”. The hegemony will change to an Asian century but the sign out the front will display “business as usual”.

Jones, B. 1982 Sleepers Wake OUP Doshi, R. 2021 The Long Game OUP

1 Bach (Cantata 140) yes, but see Jones; a former Australian minister of science 2 Salem, S. 2020 Chinese Foreign Aid to Fiji: Threat or Opportunity China Report 56 : 2 (2020): 242–58 3 Dec. 2021 https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-59574532 4 https://www.forbes.com/sites/stuartanderson/2021/10/04/trumps-exit-from-asian-trade-pact-damaged-america-boosted-china/?sh=2c6036995e80 5 or similar, as some of the more excitable reporters, about the world, have suggested 6 The following link (ABC Australia) being typical : https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-04-05/us-admiral-lashes-solomon-islands-security-pact-china/100967110 7 https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/blogpost/post/xi-jinpings-comments-stir-nationalist-sentiments-on-chinese-twitter-ahead-of-trip-to-us/2012/02/13/gIQADPunAR_blog.html 8 see Doshi

At the beginning of February 2021 Henry Puna, from the Cook Islands, was elected by one vote to lead the PIF for the next five years

Kyle Hargraves is a Pukekohe local who has lived all over the world. He has studied extensively and has numerous degrees. His career spans many industries and he has enjoyed success as a top level executive. Kyle has always enjoyed writing and has followed the political scene with interest.

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elocal Digital Edition – May 2022 (#253)

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May 2022 (#253)

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