Although the international news media seem to think otherwise, it would be a mistake to see Taiwan’s loss this month of two Pacific Island diplomatic partners, the Solomon Islands and Kiribati, as driven by Beijing’s relentless campaign to isolate Taiwan.
This isn’t really about Taiwan. In its press releases, Beijing pretends that its “One China Principle” is the primary issue, but the ulterior objective is strategic control of the Pacific. Washington, of late, is very fond of Taiwan, but to the White House, Pentagon and State Department, who does — or doesn’t — recognize Taipei as the government of “all China” is of little concern. Their primary hope is that Taipei’s diplomatic presence in these islands can remain an effective and inexpensive instrument to blunt China’s Pacific expansion.
Chinese foreign ministry spokespersons, of course, boasted all week that “the one-China principle meets the shared aspiration of the people and is an irresistible trend of the times.” But this is mere bombast to mask Beijing’s more profound objective: the “integration” of these island nations into “The Great Family of China-Pacific Island Cooperation” (融入中國同太平洋島國合作的大家庭), a family with China in charge. It is a phrase redolent of Imperial Japan’s wartime boast of a “Greater East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere” (大東亞共榮圈).
It is this specter of a “Great Sino-Pacific Family” that has finally caught Washington’s attention. In Washington’s alarm, Tokyo, Canberra and Wellington too have awakened from their inattention to see their homes and neighbors in the Pacific Ocean overrun by Chinese migration, shipping, scientific surveillance and of course, the People’s Liberation Army Navy. They also have a newfound respect for Taipei’s diplomatic efforts in the region.
I suspect the Chinese foreign ministry’s “Great Sino-Pacific Cooperative Family” is China’s answer to US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo’s national day messages to the Solomon Islands and Kiribati back in July which “welcomed” those islands’ “commitments to advancing our shared vision for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific region with other democracies in the Pacific region including Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, and Japan.” Secretary Pompeo’s sentiments were soothing at the time, but did little to persuade decision-makers in the islands. They were too little and too late.
When Solomon Islanders voted last April, the top two competing politicians were already halfway into Beijing’s pocket. The sitting prime minister campaigned on a platform to re-examine ties with Taipei and promised handsome sums of Chinese money to provincial constituents.
Yet, he lost to Manasseh Sogavare, a predecessor premier who resigned in 2017 amid allegations he had accepted political kickbacks from Chinese telecoms giant Huawei to take over an undersea fiberoptic cable from the Solomon Islands capital of Honiara to Sydney. Poor Taiwan was at a disadvantage either way — even considering significant voters’ angst about Chinese migrants overwhelming their country’s economy and commerce.
Washington labored mightily to salvage the situation. In July US diplomats arranged to have Solomon Islands’ Prime Minister Sogavare to meet American Vice President Michael Pence at last week’s United Nations General Assembly to talk about Taiwan. Pence hoped to gain time by postponing the Solomonic judgment. But Sogavare did not take Washington’s grave interest in Taiwan to heart. Pressed by Beijing, Sogavare precipitously split with Taipei beforehand. Pence cancelled the meeting and Sogavare opted not to go to New York after all.
For over three decades, China has carefully built a presence in virtually all of the Pacific Island states, including Taiwan’s partners, following virtually the same game-plan every time. First, Chinese civilians posing as small businessmen invest in small projects in the target countries; second, they apply for investor status and passports; third, more Chinese immigrants come to work in their businesses; fourth, they involve themselves in local politics, make political contributions, and payoffs and work through local police, politicians, and bureaucrats to ease the immigration of even more Chinese. Unfortunately, some immigrant businesses expand into illegal activities, smuggling, prostitution, narcotics, money laundering. Island law enforcement can be entrapped in these schemes.
Larger Chinese investment projects demand the importation of Chinese laborers and construction workers for hotels, shopping arcades, and real estate development. Bigger Chinese government-funded infrastructure projects offload large construction brigades at Pacific Island port towns. And they stay. They become a permanent part of island populations. In the Solomon Islands, the mainland Chinese population grew from less than 500 in 2006 to over 5,000 in 2019 — 1,000% in thirteen years! These new Chinese migrants do not assimilate as did the small Chinese “Waku” (華僑) communities of the last century, but rather socialize among themselves, hire yet more employees from China, and remain apart and alien, and unwelcome to the native population.
In Honiara last April, the Financial Times reported that Solomon Islands ties with Taiwan were uppermost in the minds of voters in the capital city. Islanders dreaded ever more pervasive Chinese control of their homeland. The April 24th election of Prime Minister Sogavare’s partisans, who campaigned to break ties with Taiwan, sparked rioting and looting by Solomon youth aimed at big “New Chinese” buildings and strip malls.
“New Chinese” are distinct from the “Waku.” They hail from Fujian and Guangdong. Their businesses have come to dominate retail, restaurants, entertainment and hospitality, in Honiara. The Economist magazine quoted a social media post: “Everyone is stealing from everyone. Politicians steal from the people, Chinese businesses steal from their customers.” As payback, the rioters were “stealing from the Chinese” businesses.
But Solomon Islander youth still don’t have training, jobs, or futures. Corrupt officials and grasping provincial politicians, they believe, will attract even more “New Chinese” in-migration, enriching themselves but doing nothing for Honiara people or the nation’s youth. They can only look forward to a 21st Century of Chinese hotels, shopping centers, casinos and high-rise apartment blocks built for tourists, and modern seaport facilities all staffed by newcomer Chinese laborers, stevedores, engineers and loggers exploiting and extracting Island resources for Chinese markets. Australian sociologist Anouk Ride believes it is a future in which young Pacific Islanders do not seem to have a place. Hence, their despondency.
Alas, the Solomon Islands’ experience with the “Great Sino-Pacific Cooperative Family” is repeated in Samoa, Tonga, Papua, Micronesia, French Polynesia, Vanuatu, even in tiny Nauru, to name a few. I confess a lack of political information about Kiribati, except what has slipped out via the infamous 2010 “Wikileaks” cache of diplomatic reports. But there, too: China’s pre-2004 missile-tracking facility and military improvements to the main airport, stay-behind intelligence operatives, cash payments for pro-China demonstrations and politicians, cash to overlook illicit Chinese activities; all are pages of the same playbook, all help explain what’s going on.
This future for the Solomon Islands is a small part of Chinese State Chairman Xi Jinping’s (習近平) “China Dream” and his “Great Sino-Pacific Cooperative Family.” To the outside world, China posits a “Community of Shared Human destiny” (人類命運共同體) of which President Xi so eloquently spoke at the United Nations in Geneva in January 2017. President Xi says China seeks to “build” this “community of destiny” with China’s new “Maritime Silk Road Economic Belt” (海上絲綢之路經濟帶) strategy — the so-called “One Belt, One Road.” In his new “Great Sino-Pacific Family,” he certainly will use a belt.
John J. Tkacik, Jr. is a retired US foreign service officer who has served in Taipei and Beijing and is now director of the Future Asia Project at the International Assessment and Strategy Center.
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