- Looking North, Looking South: China, Taiwan, and the South Pacific
As someone old enough to remember the mythology of the “Russian threat” in the Pacific, I’m a little suspicious of the burgeoning literature on China’s increasing influence in the South Pacific. But this collection of essays, from a 2008 conference at the University [End Page 541] of Canterbury, brings together a variety of stimulating views by academics and government officials from Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, China, and the United States, along with the doyen of Pacific studies, the late Ron Crocombe.
The essays include valuable data and contrasting perspectives on the growing importance of aid, trade, and investment from Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the Islands region, and on the impact such activities have on Australian, New Zealand, and US policy.
One problem, however, is that many Asia specialists do not know the Pacific Islands well. In the opening essay, Bertil Lintner, a noted commentator on Asian affairs, repeats a number of often-contested clichés: Melanesians have “no real concept of nationhood” (11); Solomon Islands is a “failed state” (12); and Papua New Guinea is “a tribal society with little or no national cohesion” (12). His suggestion that Chinese are “rapidly replacing” the Indian community in Fiji (26) is exaggerated, despite Indo-Fijian emigration since 1987 and overstaying by visiting Chinese workers.
Lintner argues that “China is the expanding, seemingly unstoppable power, in the Pacific” (30), while US Defense Department analyst Tamara Renee Shie calls for increased US engagement with the Islands, arguing that “should the United States continue to remain passive in the face of a growing Chinese presence, China may not only woo the South Pacific, but possibly win it” (157).
However, the suggestion that China’s rise is “unstoppable” raises more questions than it answers.
There is little if any discussion in these essays about the internal contradictions of China’s economic and social transformation and whether domestic challenges—rising proletarian expectations and labor unrest; massive environmental and energy problems; unresolved questions over Tibet, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Uyghur nationalism—will affect its capacity to maintain international outreach. As Beijing encounters financial pressures in coming years, will it maintain its efforts in relatively marginal regions like the Pacific Islands or focus its diplomacy and aid on more strategic regions in Africa and Southeast Asia?
In the face of China’s “unstoppable” role in the Islands, are the United States, France, Australia, and New Zealand simply going to sit by if their core strategic interests are challenged? The increasing militarization of Guam, with the homeporting of nuclear-attack submarines in Apra Harbor, suggests otherwise. Cheng-yi Lin’s statement that “the South Pacific has become a strategic base for observing US and Japanese military activities in the Pacific” (120) skates over the fact that those activities are largely confined to the north Pacific, not the south.
One of the better essays, by Jian Yang, gives a more measured analysis of China’s role in the region, concluding that “China’s policy towards the South Pacific is not mainly driven by its security strategy” (259). The significance of a PRC telemetry station established in Tarawa in 1998 (the source of many a “China-threat” story) was challenged when the facility was rapidly closed as soon as Kiribati [End Page 542] changed diplomatic relations to Taiwan in 2003. Bald comparisons of increased Chinese military spending with US strategic budgets often ignore the capacities of China’s neighbors like India, Korea, and Japan, or US allies like Australia.
Another useful contribution, which documents Chinese aid and loans to the Pacific, is from the Lowy Institute’s Fergus Hanson. He argues that this aid, while increasing, needs to be kept in perspective: it is equivalent to amounts provided by New Zealand, Japan, or the European Union, but nothing compared to the billions of dollars in grants and investment flowing to the region from Australia...