Friday, November 06, 2009

China and the South Pacific

from w
I read this article this morning and will re-post it without comment as I'm not as expert in such matters, but it does provide food for thought. It is from a Sydney newspaper.
China: the new big buddy on our block November 6, 2009 .

Expulsion of Australian and New Zealand diplomats from Fiji might need to be seen against the backdrop of increasing Chinese influence in the Pacific, writes Craig Skehan.

With unabashed Beijing-style censorship, the military regime of the Fiji coup leader Frank Bainimarama ensured the local press reported no criticism of this week's expulsion of senior Australian and New Zealand diplomats.

"They made sure none of the attacks got in the papers," a Fijian journalist said of the totalitarian rulers whom China helps prop up.

Getting even less attention was a committee of inquiry that is indicative of serious flaws in China's expansion in the Pacific.

The committee, appointed by the Papua New Guinea Parliament, is investigating rioting sparked in May by safety breaches and the mistreatment of locals by Chinese overseers at a $1.2 billion mine, including alleged attempts to pay overtime with tinned fish rather than cash.

That tensions at the Ramu Nickel and Cobalt Project led to attacks on Chinese shops in Port Moresby, and other centres, underscores deep-seated ethnic sensitivities. Several rioters were shot dead and future bloodshed may be inevitable if grievances fester.

The visiting Chinese Executive Vice-Premier, Li Keqiang, said the Ramu project symbolises "mutual trust". But who trusts who in a region that has extended cargo-cult hands to whatever power dips its oar in the Pacific's warm waters, in the couple of decades since colonial masters moved on?

In the 1980s we fretted about expanding Soviet influence. Along came the Taiwanese with their chequebook diplomacy. Taipei and Beijing one-upmanship - built on pursuit of diplomatic recognition - has diminished as cross-strait relations have improved, however marginally.

But in our backyard, the growing emergence of a new totalitarian super-bogey has us worried. Chinese insidiousness and corruption of the very political ethos we hold dear - and which we helped cultivate in our region - seems to threaten attachment to democratic principles and the respect for human rights that underpins them.

More than 3000 Chinese enterprises are registered in Pacific island nations - often to the chagrin of the locals with whom they compete. They open trade stores and take-away food outlets, and dump cheap Chinese imports on suffocating local manufacturing.

In the Solomon Islands, where in 2006 a mob burnt down Honiara's once quaint weatherboard Chinatown, anti-Chinese feeling was fanned even by new Chinese arrivals collecting empty soft-drink bottles.

In Fiji ethnic Indian and indigenous prostitutes face competition from Chinese women brought in for Asian fishing crews. And there have even been grisly murders among Chinese settlers over control of a lucrative market in shark fins.

Around the region, islanders can be seen sloshing tumblers of whisky with Chinese and other entrepreneurs to seal deals. Up for grabs are rainforest logs and seafood, oil, gas and minerals. So are government construction contracts - many financed by foreign aid.

Much of the large-scale Chinese migration to the region in recent years has been from the seaside province of Fujian. Estimates across the 14 independent Pacific island states put the total Chinese population as high as 200,000. In the 10 years to 2005, island trade with China increased tenfold, by one calculation. China arguably outranks Japan and Taiwan in terms of involvement and influence across the islands.

Among the arrivals are criminals who produce and smuggle drugs and run rackets, including gambling.

In Nuku'alofa, in 2006, eight people died in rioting and many Chinese businesses were destroyed. Up to 70 per cent of the Tongan capital's trade stores were owned by newly arrived Chinese.

Once Britain and France, then Australia and New Zealand, regarded the islands region as their turf. Australia and New Zealand still take on responsibilities that China does not, such as policing the Solomons when that country nearly collapsed in 2003.

China intervenes when its nationals are at risk.

Australian aid has not kept pace with needs, however, leaving gaps for China and others to fill. This is exploited by island political elites who object to Canberra's lecturing against corrupt and inept governance.

On some assessments, China is the South Pacific's third-largest aid donor - behind Australia and Japan - and often it flows from direct dealings with island leaders. That can benefit those who do the negotiating.

In Fiji, in 2006, before Bainimarama ousted the elected government of Laisenia Qarase, the Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao, announced $600 million in soft loans for development projects across the Pacific islands. Bainimarama's coup did not cut Fiji out.

A 2007 report to the US Congress noted the growing influence of China in the islands, against the backdrop of Washington's policy of stopping adversaries gaining a strategic advantage in the region.

China has focused on so-called soft political and economic power in this region but a Singapore University political scientist, Paul Buchanan, argues that the introduction of hard, or military, power is not beyond Beijing. In the Samoa Observer, recently, Buchanan warned the US must not ignore China's strategic challenge to sea lanes of communication, resources and diplomatic leverage because Australia and New Zealand could not counter the Chinese push.

China's modernisation of deep-water ports and airports in places such as Fiji - as well as development of military-to-military ties, not least with Fiji - coincides with Australia largely suspending its links. As China builds maritime and air capabilities, it is keen on intelligence gathering in the region - including eavesdropping on the US, Australia and New Zealand.

Australia has overreacted to some perceived threats. But it has under-reacted just as often. It confronted ethnic bloodletting in the Solomons but stood by as Australian companies tore out some of the last great stands of rainforest. HIV-AIDS was taking a terrible toll in PNG before Canberra was prodded from complacency.

The Chinese vice-premier also discussed military co-operation with PNG while visiting Port Moresby this week, sources say.

The Australian high commission's Suva network was good enough for officials to learn a fortnight ago that James Batley was for the diplomatic high jump.

For months whispers from Fiji's military establishment revealed Bainimarama's army of yes men had been ordered to collect evidence of meddling to justify Batley's expulsion.

In the end, the declared reason for moving against the Australian and New Zealand high commissioners was that Sri Lankan judges were being denied transit on their way to Fiji to replace judges sacked by Bainimarama in April.

Bainimarama's promise to re-establish the form of democracy in place before his 2006 coup - ethnic Indians were denied full parliamentary representation according to their numbers - rings hollow, with elections pushed out to at least 2014. There is a view that Bainimarama is trying to avoid prosecution for treason or in relation to the deadly beating in 2000 of four soldiers who purportedly conspired in his overthrow as military chief.

Don't expect the new big buddy on the block to argue for a return to Fijian democracy.

Source: The Sydney Morning Herald

2 comments:

Andrew Thornley said...

Dear Wendy and Peceli,
Yes, it's certainly worth contemplating the shifting power games going on in the Pacific I really don't know how seriously China entertains ambitions in the Melanesia region. I think Papua New Guinea would be on its radar since it is such a resource-rich country (in the same way that the Japanese sought to capture PNG in WW2). Certainly when I was last in Fiji, I was infuriated at what the Suva City Council has allowed the Chinese to do along Queen Elizabeth Drive. On this most beautiful block of land at Nasese Point (a block of land which has lain vacant for decades and which should have been bought up for the use of the public as a breezy recreation area), the Chinese have erected their Embassy. Architecturally, it is a disgrace, with heavy concrete walls facing the road. The huge satellite dishes will soon go on top and the disfigurement of this peaceful area will be complete. I would not be surprised if the Chinese eventually try to stop people walking along QE Drive, as the Americans did in Suva, on the street where they had their embassy. Now of course the Americans have gone up to Tamavua (surprise?) and built a huge embassy there. So the two giants of the Pacific Rim are fighting it out in Fiji. The Chinese are at a huge disadvantage however as they have no navy to defend their foray into the Pacific. If you believe Gorge Friedman in his fascinating book, "The Next 100 Years", the Americans will know exactly what the Chinese are up to and will be watching them closely. Are we happier to have the Americans as our big brother or the Chinese? Mmmm.

Peceli and Wendy's Blog said...

Thank you for your comments Andrew. As you can see I have avoided the more topical issues (Peceli is adamant that silence is best at times) though I am uncomfortable about keeping quiet! American friends? Chinese friends? Of course we all have friends from those countries as individuals but it is the bigger picture/power that is confronting. Anyone who tries to control another is not okay!
w.