EDITORIAL: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Race riots reveal China's hand in Oceania
, May 13, 2006
Beijing is flexing its muscles in the South Pacific, using both cheque-book diplomacy and some heavy diplomatic courting.The appalling race riots in the Solomon Islands' capital, Honiara, which led to the destruction of Honiara's Chinatown district and the evacuation of hundreds of Chinese nationals, have cast new light on China's attempt to take over the economy as a means of breaking the Solomon Islands' diplomatic relations with Taiwan and the West.
When rioters destroyed much of Honiara's Chinatown, it was significant that a diplomat from Beijing's Embassy in Papua New Guinea flew to Honiara, to organise the repatriation of many Chinese nationals back to mainland China.
News reports indicate that the diplomat, Gao Feng, organised the return of between 300 and 400 Chinese people back to communist China. This is an enormous number of recent arrivals from China, in a city of just 60,000.Attempt to control
In light of the fact that Chinese nationals cannot leave China without Beijing's approval, in the absence of any other explanation it seems that the Chinese nationals' presence in Honiara was an attempt by Beijing to control Honiara's economy, in a bid to turn the Government away from the West and towards Beijing.
The riots were triggered by the election of Snyder Rini as Prime Minister by the island nation's parliament. Mr Rini was alleged to have been elected by a process which included bribery.
The politics of the Solomon Islands is highly complex, and is linked with both racial and islander issues. In 2003, Australian, New Zealand and other regional troops were forced to intervene in a civil war between militias composed of people from Guadalcanal, the main island where the capital is located, and migrants from a nearly island, Malaita, who believe they have been the subject of systematic discrimination.
The Chinese Government has been very active in the region, as documented in a recent article, "China Woos the South Pacific" by Tamara Renee Shie (Asia Times
, March 29, 2006).
She writes that, since the early 1990s, as the US scaled back its involvement in the region - closing embassies and reducing aid - China has steadily been moving in. She says:
"China now has nine diplomatic posts in the South Pacific (including a care-taking group in Kiribati) and [has] more [diplomats posted] in the region than any other country. ...
"Countries that recognise China have been showered with major infrastructure and assistance projects, including a US$5.5 million sports complex in Kiribati, another $4 million sport facility in Fiji, and the donation of two cargo ships worth $9.4 million to Vanuatu."
Just last month, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao travelled to Fiji for talks with leaders from eight Pacific nations, reinforcing Beijing's interest in the area.
In contrast, much of the aid given by Australia has been in the form of military aid or government advisers. In the Solomons, this has been in the form of RAMSI, the Australian-led Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands.
While RAMSI's police role was widely welcomed in suppressing the rival militias which turned Guadalcanal into a war zone, it has done little to restore a functioning economy, leaving a vacuum into which the Chinese have rapidly moved.
As Tamara Shie points out, China is using its growing economic power to extend its political influence in the South Pacific. Commercial deals, she observes, lean heavily on the win-win side, "developing natural resources needed in China, particularly minerals, timber and fish, while providing much-needed investment for the aid-reliant South Pacific".
She writes: "Such agreements have included a $625 million nickel and cobalt mine in Papua New Guinea (PNG) and millions to reinvigorate a Cook Islands fishing and processing plant. In June 2004, Tonga's sole electric power company received $17 million in 'technical assistance' from the Bank of China."
This chequebook diplomacy is coordinated with heavy diplomatic courting.
Ms Shie writes: "Many South Pacific leaders now make Beijing their first overseas trip after taking office. Between March 2004 and July 2005, eight heads of state [of South Pacific countries] paid official visits to China at the invitation (and most likely with the financial support) of the Chinese Government. An 80-person entourage accompanied PNG Prime Minister Michael Somare on his February 2004 visit.
"In international organizations where 'one country, one vote' is the rule, regional blocs can be important. China is a major donor to the Pacific Islands Forum and the highest-paying subscriber to the South Pacific Tourism Organization. China has also had a hand in promoting or delaying votes on UN membership for Kiribati, Nauru, Tonga, and Tuvalu.
"Over the long term, the South Pacific may also prove an important strategic asset to Beijing. In 1997 China established a satellite-tracking station on South Tarawa Atoll in Kiribati.
"Ostensibly built to assist with China's space program, there was press speculation that the station may have also been used to spy on the US missile range in the nearby Marshall Islands. The station was dismantled after Kiribati's diplomatic defection to Taiwan in November 2003, but Beijing is reportedly looking for another place in the region to set up shop."
The mistake which the Australian Government made in 2003 was to regard the issue as simply a law-and-order problem, when what was needed was a commitment to restore a viable local economy. Australia could help in a major way by providing incentives for Australian businesses to invest in the Solomons, with support to train an indigenous class of people to run these businesses.
- Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.