Friday, July 25, 2008

China in Oceania is overwhelmingly genuine

By Mathew Yakai in Changchun, China

CHINA is making its new, more robust, presence felt around the globe, including in Oceania, according to an American academic.

Terence Wesley-Smith, Associate Professor and graduate chair in the Center for Pacific Island Studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, however, said there is no evidence to suggest that Pacific Island states are being singled out for special attention.

Indeed, Professor Wesley-Smith said it is clear that other regions, including the Middle East, certain parts of Asia and Africa are of much greater and more immediate interest to policy makers in Beijing.

But he outlined that most of China’s recent activities in the pacific region can be explained with reference to general and growing economic appetite for trade and natural resources, as well as more pointed political interest in governing support for Beijing’s agenda in multilateral institutions.

As such, Wesley-Smith pointed out that China’s immediate interests are not much different from those of other powers activity in the region, such as the United States, Japan, New Zealand and Australia.

“The major difference is that these powers are well established in Oceania while China is not,” Terence said in his paper titled, China in Oceania: New Forces in Pacific Politics.

In this 29 pages policy paper, Wesley-Smith explores strategic, political and economic dimensions of Beijing’s heightened interest in Oceania.

He challenges the disingenuous threat discourse pervading the existing literature, and argues that China’s rise offers island states opportunities not available under established structure power.

In my column today, I would like to briefly review the article and further note the brief summary for my readers, especially the policy makers and general public who are concerned about China’s presence in the region.

In the paper, Wesley-Smith notes that China’s primary objective is to gain the support of island states, particularly to isolate Taiwan, and that it has a growing interest in the natural resources of the region.

He says China and the Western powers previously shared an interest in excluding the Soviet Union from Oceania, however, today tensions between them increasingly influence the strategic environment.

China is not setting itself up to assume a leadership or military role in Oceania, Wesley-Smith maintains. He disputes the notion that Beijing has exploited regional vulnerabilities, and that its activities have encouraged corruption and instability.

He also argues that U.S. neglect is not a significant factor in the rise of China in Oceania. Instead, Western aid-leveraged efforts to impose neo-liberal reforms have made island leaders more receptive to Beijing’s message of peaceful coexistence, equality, respect for sovereignty and the promise of united aid.

Wesley-Smith argues that China’s rise in Oceania largely parallels development in the Caribbean and disturbs a situation where a small number of allied powers exercise enormous regional influence.

But he notes that all of these regional actors have growing economic entanglements with China, and compelling reasons to avoid confrontation.

He suggests that the Western powers have to accept that China is in Oceania to stay. They can do little but urge Beijing to play by the rules they have established, yet in the end it may be the allied powers that have to compromise.

Wesley-Smith concludes that China’s rise broadens the options for island states, whose leaders are accustomed to operating in a world controlled by great powers.

The paper is a must read for any policy makers or interested individuals in China’s economic rise in the region.

Wesley-Smith has gone far to review other existing scholarly work on China’s presence in the region and has identified numerous misrepresentation.

Given this, any ill-informed individuals would have negative opinion on what Beijing is genuinely offering to the region.

He identified that much of the small but growing corpus of literatures on China’s changing role in Oceania is suspicious of Beijing’s motives and critical of its influence on island states.

The three main scholars/writers he identified as misinformed are John Henderson, Benjamin Reilly and Susan Windybank. Henderson and Reilly jointly authored “Dragon in Paradise: China’s Rising Star in Oceania”, depicting Beijing’s presence in the region poses threat. Windybank spoke the same language, but warned that Australia should intervene.

All these writers, according to Wesley-Smith, often emphasize what they see as negative local impacts before going on to question China’s long-term goals in the region.

The ‘credible threat’ thesis provides the starting point for much writing on China’s role in Oceania. According to Wesley-Smith, Henderson and Reilly, for example have no doubt that China’s long term goal is to “replace the United States as the preeminent power in the Pacific Ocean”.

Wesley-Smith notes that Windybank repeats these themes in the context of Australian interests when she suggests that if present trend continues, “the island states in the region for which the Australian government has taken responsibility would owe their allegiance to a country outside the U.S. system of region alliance”.

These authors assume, rather then demonstrate that China represents a long-term threat to Western global interests, and that the threat will include a military dimension.

They do not consider alternative scenarios, which cite China’s heavy investment in the global economy, and its complex financial entanglements with rival parties including the United States, Japan, and Australia, among the factors likely to favor compromise aid corporation over confrontation, even in the longer term.

Wesley-Smith alleged that Reilly, Henderson and Windybank offer no proof that China is actually engaged in any military-related activities in Oceania or has any plans to do so.

Indeed, there is no published evidence of any attempts to establish port facility, or negotiate military bases, anywhere in the vast reaches of Oceania.

The possible exception is the Chinese satellite tracking facility established in the Republic of Kiribati in 1997, which some suspect was also used to monitor U.S. activities at the Kwajalein range in neighboring Marshall Islands.

However, Wesley-Smith says the authors offer no evidence to support their claims that the facility was used for anything other than its stated function, let alone that it played “an important role in the development of China’s space warfare program.”

And, even if this modest facility did in fact play such a role, does that really justify a claim that the region as a whole has significant “strategic value” to China?

It is worth noting that the tracking station was dismantled after a new Kiribati government switched its allegiance to Taiwan in Nov. 2003.

Admittedly, China left under protest, but the fact that it withdrew at all seems in consistent with the assignment that this facility was key to Beijing’s strategic planning.

According to the executive summary, the 2006 China-Pacific Islands summit in Fiji underscored Beijing’s heightened interest in Oceania.

China in Oceania explores some of strategic, political, and economic dimensions of this new era in regional affairs. It challenges the disingenuous threat discourse pervading the existing literature on the topic, and argues that China’s rise offers Pacific Island States opportunities not available under established structures of power and influence.

The island states of Oceania play a small but increasingly significant role in China’s foreign policy. Beijing’s continuing emphasis on economic growth, not least to counter widespread internal unrest, drive a global search for raw materials and markets.

In recent years, economic considerations have tended to dominate global decision-making despite Beijing’s strategic interest in countering U.S. containment efforts, blocking Japan’s aspirations for an enhanced international role, and isolating Taiwan.

China has a growing interest in the resources of the region, particularly natural gas and minerals in Papua New Guinea.

However, China’s primary objective is to gain the support of island states on a range of political issues, most notably its ongoing efforts to isolate Taiwan.

Taiwan is relatively successful in Oceania, claiming the support of six island states, but is likely to be able to sustain its aid-based efforts in the face of China’s superior resources.

Meanwhile, the two China’s rivalry attracts much attention from observers. Although China and the Western powers previously shared an interest in excluding the Soviet Union from Oceania, today the strategic environment is increasingly influenced by tensions between them.

Many writers argue that China poses a credible threat to U.S. interest in Oceania. However, China does not appear to be setting itself up to challenge the status quo in global politics or to assume a leadership role in Oceania.

Even if it were, it is not clear how the island states feature in Beijing’s strategic planning since none lie close to important trans-Pacific commercial or military sea routes.

China has not attempted to establish port facilities or military bases anywhere in the vast reaches of Oceania.

There is little evidence to support the notion that China has gained influence by exploiting regional vulnerabilities, or that its activities have encouraged corruption and instability in Oceania.

The Pacific Island region compares well with other parts of the developing world on measure of corruption, and the argument that island states are somehow “cheap to buy” does not bear close scrutiny.

Aid money from Taiwan, not China, has been significant in the internal politics of crises-torn Solomon Islands. Although China-Taiwan competition was a major issue in the domestic politics of Kiribati in 2003, this political entity remains one of the most stable in the region.

The new government demonstrated its strength when it terminated the relationship with Beijing, despite the supposed strategic significance of China’s satellite tracking facility on Tarawa.

Local resentment against new Chinese migrants to Oceania has little to do with China’s foreign policy, and may actually complicate Beijing’s attempts to build regional alliances.

Although the early record with labor practices at the Ramu Nickel project in Papua New Guinea is not reassuring, it remains to be seen whether large-scale Chinese resource ventures will fare any worse with landowner and environmental issues that their Western counterparts have in places like Bougainville and Ok Tedi.

But if there is any problem in the future then the blame should be put on PNG government, then the multinational company because the government must make sure the national and local needs are met through rules and regulations set. None should be bypassed for personal gain.

It is unlikely that U.S. neglect or preoccupied with other parts of the world have made Oceania vulnerable to China’s increased influence.

Washington continues to loom large in Micronesia, while its post-World War II presence south of the equator was never particularly robust.

Any strategic vacuum created by program cutbacks since the end of the Cold War has been filled by the increased activities of allied powers such as Australia, New Zealand, France, Japan and the European Union.

If anything, China’s increasing influence in Oceania owes more to Western involvement than to Western neglect. Recent aid-leveraged efforts to impose comprehensive neo-liberal economic and political reforms have cause resentment among island leaders.

It is perhaps understandable that China’s alternative development message, emphasizing peaceful coexistence, equality, respect for the social systems and sovereignty of island countries, and promising united aid has been warmly received.

Nevertheless, skeptical island leaders may wonder about China’s growing domestic discontent, its dubious track record on key issues like global warming and fisheries management, and its lack of commitment to democratic institutions.

Oceania’s recent experience with China largely parallels that the Caribbean Islands. As in Oceania, Beijing’s heightened regional profile has been generally welcomed by the local leaders but regarded with suspicion by Western commentators protective of an area long regarded as America’s backyard.

However, there is no indication that Western neglect has facilitated China’s rise in the hemisphere, or that Beijing intends to challenge U.S. leadership in the region.

As in the Pacific, China’s economic impact is uneven, with trade and investment concentrated in places that can supply raw materials.

The emphasis on a narrow range of primary exports may inhibit economic diversification, and countries with labor-intensive manufacturing industries are finding it difficult to compete with Chinese products in affluent markets.

There is no evidence that China has singled out Oceania for special attention. Most of Beijing’s recent activities in the region can be explained by a general appetite for trade and natural resources, as well as more pointed interest in garnering political support in multilateral institutions.

Although China’s rise disturbs a situation where a small number of allied powers exercise an enormous amount of regional influence, all of these regional actors have growing economic entanglements with China – and compelling reasons to avoid confrontation.

Beijing stands apart from this consortium of donors, offering support but asking little beyond recognition of the “One China” policy.

The Western powers have no option but to accept that, barring significant setbacks, China is in Oceania to stay. They can do little but urge Beijing to play by the rules they have established and enforced for decades.

It may be the allied powers rather than China that ultimately have to compromise.

Much of the debate surrounding China’s rise in Oceania invokes the welfare and interests of island communities.

But choices about development objectives, or how to achieve them, should be made by those most invested in the outcome – islanders themselves.

At least for the moment, China appears to broaden the menu of options for island states, whose leaders are well accustomed to operating in a world controlled by great powers.

The policy paper is worth reading. A PDF file and information about this publication can be found on the East-West Center website, To obtain print copies, please contact: Publication Sales Office, East-West Center, 1601 East-West Road, Honolulu, Haiwaii 96848-1601, USA. Email them on:

Regarding the author, Wesley-Smith is not new in the Pacific, especially PNG. He was born in the Republic of Ireland and lived for eight years in New Zealand before going to Haiwaii in 1981 to pursue his PhD.

His doctoral dissertation explores the political economy of mining in PNG, with a specific focus on the island of Bougainville.

Note: “Asia-Pacific Perspective: China +” looks at Chinese society, culture, economy, governance and China’s role within the Asia Pacific region and the world over. It mainly focuses on how Oceania can learn from China’s experience. The writer is a Papua New Guinean studying in China.

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