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CI Times Weekly | Current Issue 262 | 04 August 2008

Recent surge in Chinese attention to Cook Islands

(Part two)
At present, the governments of the Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Kingdom of Tonga, Niue, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Kingdom of Tonga and Vanuatu side with China while those of Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Solomon Islands, Palau and Tuvalu recognize Taiwan as regionally and politically autonomous. It is not uncommon for an island government, such as that of the Marshall Islands, to switch its allegiance from Taiwan to China in response to financial inducement.
Wesley-Smith pointed to the possibility that Chinese political motives run deeper than a desire to garner support for the One-China policy. “I think this is a little bit wider than just Taiwan,” he said. “Having allies in the UN and other international organizations can also work to China’s advantage when people criticize China for its human rights violations.”
Whatever the motive, China’s strategy of offering aid in exchange for diplomatic recognition is becoming more noticeable throughout the Pacific. Scholars have termed this tactic “checkbook diplomacy,” which implies the physical purchase of political support.
The consensus among a number of academics is that this approach to ally-building has a negative impact on the less powerful party. Some doubt that a relatively weak island nation will be able to resist becoming dependent on a powerful benefactor like China. Wesley-Smith, however, noted that this aid dependency is not a new phenomenon in the Pacific region nor is it specific to the Chinese situation.
“There are always some big problems with small economies and the issue of aid dependency. If you look at these economies you see that aid flows are among the highest in the world per capita, actually. But I think you’ve got to look at the history of that and how that happened—it didn’t just happen by accident,” he said. He suggested that by positing the issue in a wider context, it becomes possible to dispel some of the anxiety surrounding the problem of dependence on Chinese aid.
“If you think back to the time of independence—we’re talking about the Cold War, a global competition between the West and the Soviet Union. For the decision makers in Canberra and Wellington and Washington, the bottom line when it came to the Pacific was to ‘keep those countries on our side.’ It was a determination to keep the Soviets out of the region by influencing the leaders, establishing or cultivating relationships with Pacific countries. And one mechanism for doing that was providing aid,” he said.
For Wesley-Smith, Pacific island history is rooted in a colonial tradition of aid dependency. Chinese aid does not differ from that offered by Australia, New Zealand or the United States in terms of its purpose or its scope. Checkbook diplomacy, he said, is not specific to Chinese strategy. Rather, it is a tactic employed by governments all over the world and plays a significant role in contemporary Oceanic history. “All countries who are involved in the region are doing what they’re doing because they’re trying to achieve certain objectives,” he said.
Most scholars maintain that this long history of aid dependence throughout the Pacific has created issues for a number of island governments. Academics generally object to any decision or business negotiation that could potentially exacerbate the problem.
In an interview with Japan Focus, Professor Stuart Harris of Australian National University delineated the dangers of checkbook diplomacy for small, vulnerable Oceanic nations. “The context in which this competition [between Taiwan and China] plays out is a region largely of states that are weak in economic and governance terms, with governments that are often basically unstable,” he said. “Aid dependency is widespread and so is corruption. The impact of the competition between Taiwan and China, usually in the form of financial aid, undermines the considerable efforts made in a number of these states.”
In a recent e-mail, a representative of the Cook Islands government who requested anonymity defended the stability of the Islands’ political institutions. “You might recall the Italian loan for the Sheraton Hotel signed off in the 1980s—turned out to be a scam by an Italian bank that had been infiltrated by the Mafia. The fact that Cook Islands signed off on that document was due to ‘weak governance’ issues,” he said. “The ‘checks and balances’ now in place within government are much more stringent and the likelihood of that happening now is a lot less.”
He explained that dependency syndrome is a non-issue within the Cook Islands government and defended the Cooks-China relationship as a mutually advantageous arrangement. He added that the decision to accept Chinese loans was a sensible one, as China has proven to be a more flexible business partner than any other foreign power to date.
“Western institutions have failed to meet our development needs through an insistence [that we adhere] to a policy on loans and aid based on regional approaches that don’t meet the needs of microstates,” he said. “[Their offers] are more insidious than the Chinese.”
Many islanders feel that China does have sinister ulterior motives and suspect that local officials are interested in their personal economic security before that of their people. That government officials across the Pacific receive prepaid trips to Beijing and contractual perks worsens such suspicions. - Continued Next Issue

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Headlines : Times 250 12 May 2008
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Headlines : Times 232 24 December 2007
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Headlines : Times 231 17 December 2007
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Headlines : Times 230 10 December 2007
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Headlines : Times 224 29 October 2007
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Headlines : Times 222 15 October 2007
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Headlines : Times 220 30 September 2007
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