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Foreign Policy

Island-hopping in the Pacific

Sep 27 , 2019
  • John Gong

    Research Fellow, Charhar Institute

Within two weeks, Taiwan’s diplomatic relations dropped by two notches in the Oceania region. The Solomon Islands and the Republic of Kiribati are the latest countries to sever official ties with Taiwan. As is always the case these days, the shadow of Washington’s involvement has been visible throughout the dramatic process unfolding in the Solomon Islands’ capital, Honiara. The White House was on the phone with Solomon officials every week prior to Honiara’s eventual decision, urging against severing ties and promising to reopen its embassy, which the United States shut down in 1993.

In response to Honiara’s decision to switch relations to China, U.S. Vice President Michael Pence cancelled a meeting with Solomon’s Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare scheduled to take place on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York. Japan, and more quietly Australia, New Zealand and France, also reportedly chimed in, trying to dissuade Honiara from switching. One has to wonder how much of a role Washington played in these coercive measures against a tiny but sovereign Pacific island country.

These latest developments come amidst a larger trend of Taiwanese diplomatic debacles. Since Tsai Ing-wen’s DPP (Democratic Progressive Party) regime came to power, Taiwan’s diplomatic community has lost seven members, dwindling to only 15 countries. And it appears the end is nowhere in sight. Haiti, Guatemala, Palau and Tuvalu may soon follow. The Vatican’s switch has also been rumored for quite some time. In a few more years, Taipei may indeed have to grapple with the real possibility of having no diplomatic relations at all.

This is the future scenario that has aroused anger among some pro-Taiwan senators in the U.S. Congress, in spite of the fact that the U.S. government itself still officially claims to adhere to the “One China” policy. Senator Cory Gardner called China’s action “hostile,” while Senator Marco Rubio called the Solomon Islands’ decision “shameful.”

To vent their wanton anger, senators have also jointly introduced a Senate bill, called the “Taiwan allies international protection and enhancement initiative act,” or the Taipei Act, which would impose consequences on countries severing ties with Taiwan. The bill is currently going nowhere on the Senate floor, which is likely in Taiwan’s interest, given that the threat of its potential success would likely have caused a stampede among the remaining 15 countries to ditch Taiwan before the bill had a chance to end up on President Trump’s desk for signature.

American concern for the changing international relations dynamics in the Pacific arises not just from the imperative to prop up Taiwan. Unsurprisingly, the United States views China’s economic inroads into the Oceania region through a geostrategic prism. In typical Washington security strategists’ jargon, China’s support to the region’s infrastructure investments is nefariously portrayed as “projection of power” or “breakthrough of the Second Island Chain encirclement.” Some would go so far as elevating it to the level of a grand hard power competition with the United States, even drawing comparisons to the Japanese invasion of the Pacific during World War II. The famous Guadalcanal, where American and Japanese navies battled fiercely and which is now littered with the wrecks of warships from both sides, lies just north of the Solomon Islands.

The theory that China has military aspirations for this part of the Pacific is of course rooted in Cold War mentality. But to those countries that have switched to Beijing’s camp, the Belt and Road initiative is widely recognized as a two-way street. For too long, the region has been neglected economically and regarded as little more than a few small dots on a map hanging on the walls of the U.S.-controlled World Bank in Washington D.C.

What has the United States brought to the Pacific region since 1947? That being the year that Washington swindled an agreement with the United Nations to establish the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands under U.S. governorship, which covers an area comprising about 2,000 islands spread over three million square miles of the Pacific Ocean.

Well, 105 nuclear tests so far – a fact that is not widely publicized in China.

Most of these nuclear tests were conducted in territories of the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI), just north of the Solomon Islands and the Republic of Kiribati. At RMI’s Bikini Atoll alone, there was a series of 23 nuclear explosions, detonated on the sea, in the air and underwater, the largest being the 15 Megaton Castle Bravo shot, which continues to claim Marshall Islands victims today.

The hypocrisy of accusing China of being “hostile” is stunning to say the least. The Unites States has absolutely no moral high ground from which to preach to anyone on how to behave in the Pacific. As acknowledged by Solomon’s Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, establishing ties with Beijing is standing on the right side of history together with more than 200 United Nations member countries, in addition to the benefits of more tourism and investments from China. China has now become the largest trading partner for most of the Pacific island countries.

The Solomon’s decision is also likely motivated by a small island country’s wish to counterbalance power flexed by Australia in the region. Fiji was the first country there to push back against Canberra. Frank Bainimarama, the Prime Minister of Fiji once described Australian Prime Minister Morrison’s approach at the Pacific Islands Forum as “very insulting and condescending.” The Solomon Islands got its own fair share of “insulting and condescending” from Australia in the China-vs-Taiwan tug-of-war. Here is what Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare had to say during a recent interview with an Australian university professor:

“When it comes to economics and politics, Taiwan is completely useless to us. I sent 40 police officers to go and train in Taiwan. That’s when RAMSI is already in this country. And you know what Australia did? The Foreign Affairs Minister himself went to Taiwan and says stop the training. That area is ours. And so they stop that. If this was China, they wouldn’t give a damn [about] Alexander Downer. They’d say get the hell out of here. This is a sovereign decision made by a sovereign government. And we can enter into military arrangements; get China to help us to establish a military force. You can’t do that with Taiwan.”

Against the 105 mushroom clouds that used to hang over the Pacific Ocean, Australia will admittedly have to take a back seat to the United States when it comes to a “That area is ours” statement. Today, China’s ships and airplanes are advancing into the Pacific, bringing along tourists, investments, prosperity and hopefully some dignity as well to the indigenous peoples on these islands. I would argue further that even if one day China does install some kind of defense capabilities on one of the two thousand islands and atolls there, it would still pale in comparison with the network of over 800 military bases the Pentagon commands around the globe. But China does not seem to have the intention to do so.

China indeed has a need to establish a network of global defense capabilities to protect its sea shipping lanes and overseas investments. Today the country is the world’s largest trading nation, with the largest exports and second largest imports globally. China operates the world’s largest fleet of ocean-going freight vessels with a total transportation tonnage of 160 million tons, accounting for two-thirds of the world’s total freight capacity. China is also rapidly becoming a major outward foreign direct investment originating country, as the world’s industrial manufacturing clustering is beginning to gradually move away from China to lower labor cost countries.

With such a large global supply chain network that encompasses both trade and investment around the world, it is unimaginable, as well as historically unprecedented, that China does not have the defense capability to effectively protect its sea shipping lanes. The Pacific region at issue sits along the critical paths of China’s trade with the Western Hemisphere. The area is also strategic in terms of providing ground support for satellite and other outer space operations. It should come as no surprise then that China would intend to establish logistics bases in the Pacific Ocean.

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