‘War’ amid the micro-states

China and Taiwan are locking horns in a little-known diplomatic struggle in one of the world’s remotest locales—and it’s a battle China is effortlessly winning, writes Chris Pritchard.


It sounds like an impressive soccer score: China 8, Taiwan 6. There’s just one problem: this all-too-real clash certainly isn’t happening on a football field.

China’s charm offensive plus a dollop of canny Pacific self-interest have combined to erode Taiwanese clout among micro-states sprinkled across a vast backwater that the world usually ignores. This low-profile clash has China whittling away what is left of Taiwan’s influence. Beijing, employing the supposedly Chinese attribute of patience, is effectively wrangling governmental commitment away from Taiwan—which it considers a temporarily errant province—and towards itself.

Anyone doubting Beijing’s level of determination need only look even further south, to the uninhabited, frozen but mineral-rich continent of Antarctica. There, too, China is cementing its presence. And China doesn’t play to lose.

The days of tossing money at grandiose Pacific white-elephant projects are well and truly over, reputedly because of a truce quietly spearheaded by Taiwanese President Ma Ying-Jeou, who proposed that the two end competition for low-level Pacific allies. Nonetheless, rivalry continues discreetly. While also beneficial to aid recipients, this allows China to extend an already impressive lead.

For the record, independent Pacific nations recognising China are the Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Niue, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu. The Cook Islands and Niue chose to become ‘associated states of New Zealand’ at independence, leaving pacifist Wellington to handle defence and some foreign relations. Niue is one of the world’s smallest nations, its 260sq km dwarfed by many Australian farms, including 23,677sq km Anna Creek cattle station; only 1100 people live on Niue but 24,000 Niueans call New Zealand home. The Cook Islands is a nation with no traffic lights and a prison population often numbering only three.

Taiwan, officially the Republic of China to differentiate itself from Beijing’s People’s Republic of China, is recognised by Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Nauru,  Palau, the Solomon Islands and Tuvalu—a half-dozen island countries that haven’t yet succumbed to an undeniable trend of switching allegiance.

China has persuaded the world’s major nations to recognise it rather than Taiwan, leaving the isolated latter with recognition from only 28 United Nations members—mostly tiny entities in the Pacific, Africa, the Caribbean, Central America and South America. Taiwan tolerates the minor inconvenience of conducting diplomacy with trading partners through a mix of trade, cultural and economic offices. These also perform consular functions such as visa issuance. Trading partners participate in this charade (tolerated by China). For instance, the American Institute in Taipei, the Taiwanese capital, is a de facto US embassy.

A trip through the Pacific’s island nations showcases China’s presence, as prominent as that of America’s fundamentalist Christian churches.  That China takes its Pacific adventure  very seriously is effectively illustrated by the visit, in 2014, of President Xi Jinping to Fiji, one of the minnow states’ two superpowers (the other being Papua New Guinea). Both Papua New Guinea and Fiji, recognising China, have mining sectors in which Beijing is increasingly involved.

POOR PUBLICITY: Fiji’s Navua Hospital made news for all the wrong reasons
POOR PUBLICITY: Fiji’s Navua Hospital made news for all the wrong reasons

Aid from each of the so-called ‘two Chinas’ is similar, encompassing agricultural assistance, training in sundry niches, health and education. Both Asian nations import agricultural production from countries in their orbit and export to them mostly machinery, consumer electronics and clothing. Whether a country recognises China or Taiwan matters little in street-level business, where much commercial activity is in the hands of ethnically Chinese minorities readily importing from the cheapest source—usually China rather than Taiwan. Fiji is an exception in that retail is dominated by an Indian minority trading with both India and China.

Taiwan’s highest profile presence is in the Solomon Islands, where the Asian island nation operates an active embassy. Highest profile aid is to the health sector. On a tree-lined highway from Honiara International Airport (formerly named Henderson Field) to the capital of these self-styled ‘Hapi Isles’, visitors pass a complex of World War II American-built barracks-like structures. (The Solomon islands—the main isle of Guadalcanal, in particular—was a backdrop for fierce US-Japan battles.) The buildings, now called Central Hospital, are a major aid project with Taiwan’s flag prominently displayed.

But whispers in Honiara suggest that politicians in Prime Minister Manasseh Sogaware’s government want to switch recognition to China, with a decision expected in 2016. Officially, no such move is mooted. However, it’s unlikely that this diplomatic gossip hasn’t caused jitters in Taipei.

Taiwan’s largesse is hampered by its government’s new insistence on accountability and transparency. This policy tweak hasn’t always gone down well, particularly since it has been used to justify rebuffs to requests for boosted aid. The most highly publicised of these involved the small West African nation The Gambia wanting more money. After Taiwan baulked, The Gambia withdrew recognition.

China, on the other hand, is perceived as having deeper pockets and a more pragmatic approach that is less fussed about transparency.

Across the region, China has constructed stadiums, schools, hospitals, courthouses, police headquarters and office towers. However, this aid has not been without controversy. In Fiji, for example, China counts low-cost housing, a hydro-electric project and a hospital (as in nearby Samoa, where China built a new national hospital) among its achievements.

But Fiji’s Navua Hospital made news for all the wrong reasons: blocked toilets, slippery floor tiles, basins too small, phone sockets in unsuitable locations and a ramp between wings so steep that personnel banned its use for patient transfers. Landowners complain they haven’t received promised compensation from operators of a Chinese bauxite mine, though the Chinese company says it has already paid an agreed sum to the government which should have disbursed it.

A stroll through the small town of Avarua, capital of the Cook Islands, reveals a Chinese-built showpiece stadium, a courthouse and police headquarters. Complaints include accusations of cheap building materials, leaks, rusting and flimsy components falling apart. Worse, the courthouse steps supposedly become a slippery hazard during tropical rainstorms.

In Tonga, a South Pacific constitutional  monarchy calling itself the ‘Friendly Isles’ where King Tupou VI retains considerable influence, Chinese road construction has proved controversial with claims of substandard construction and flooding in wet weather. On the other hand, a Chinese gift of a turbo-prop aircraft for domestic use has been widely welcomed.

Anti-Chinese riots in Tonga in 2006, where a long-established Chinese minority comprises three per cent of the population, were caused, according to local politician Clive Edwards, by ‘widespread anger at the growing presence of (Chinese) shopkeepers’ throughout the archipelago. Bigger riots in the same year in the Solomon Islands destroyed much of Honiara’s Chinatown, leaving 1000 Chinese homeless—but China, not Taiwan, airlifted them to Asia. Subsequent peace saw many drifting back to abandoned businesses with Chinese newcomers in their wake. Anti-Chinese resentment simmers beneath a cordial façade.

Neighbouring Niue’s premier, Toke Tulagi, faced criticism for granting resident status to some Chinese investors but argued successfully that doing so helped the important tourism sector.

China’s response to the Pacific’s frequent natural disasters—usually weather-related—has been rapid. After Cyclone Pam devastated Vanuatu in March 2015, destroying many dwellings and other buildings on outlying islands, Chins quickly pledged $4.8million in emergency aid.

According to Dr Philippa Brant, a China specialist at the Lowy Institute, a leading Australian think-tank, China’s increased aid and other spending is about ‘cultivating an image of China as a responsible player and as a generous nation that is there to help Pacific Island countries’.

Overall, Australia remains number-one aid provider to its Pacific backyard, followed by the United States, Japan, New Zealand and China (in that order). Dr Brant believes China will climb to the number-three spot in the near future.

‘Australia still dominates in terms of the amount of aid so I don’t think we’re seeing any challenge to Australia’s role in the region,’ she continues. ‘I don’t think the Australian government should have any concerns. But China is having a large impact in Pacific Island communities and that’s something Australia and New Zealand need to consider.’

China doesn’t publish official aid figures but it is important, notes Dr Brant, not to overstate the strategic consequences of Chinese money pouring into the region. ‘The Pacific isn’t strategically important to China,’ she explains. ‘It isn’t a high priority. It reflects the broader growth of China’s aid programme.  China and Taiwan once competed to outspend each other in the region in order to secure diplomatic recognition.’

These days, however, China’s increased spending is clearly targeted more to reinforce an image of moderation and maturity.

Further, China is already so far ahead of Taiwan—which appears to have downgraded the Pacific on its list of priorities—that any bid by the latter to regain influence, though unlikely, would be doomed to failure.

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