Our Books Editor, Lyndon Megarrity, reviews a new collection edited by Graeme Smith and Terence Wesley-Smith, about Australia, China and the Pacific region: The China Alternative: Changing Regional Order in the Pacific Islands, ANU Press, Canberra 2021.
A nation’s foreign policy tends to be broad, consisting of strategies and objectives that sometimes complement each other, and, at other times, co-exist in a state of unspoken tension. A national government’s desire for global security and trade benefits can sometimes clash sharply with its own stated humanitarian principles. Further, diplomatic meetings and summits are dressed up in a spirit of global or regional co-operation, but can also serve to highlight the global pecking order which privileges big states (either in territory or resources) over little states. A prosperous nation’s genuine pursuit of good international citizenship through bilateral and multilateral ties with poorer countries can also be inspired by a desire to maintain regional status and power.
All these complexities of foreign policy are present in The China Alternative, a new collection of essays on the strategic, economic and diplomatic impact which increasingly assertive Chinese government and commercial interests are having on the Pacific Islands in the last few decades. With the US increasingly viewing China as a major geopolitical threat to the established international order, and the new Biden administration adopting a less isolationist, more outward-looking approach than its predecessor, the book is an especially timely one.
The China Alternative originated from a conference held at Port Vila, Vanuatu in 2019 which showcased the work of several scholars undertaking research on the Pacific. Each chapter offers a different perspective on the Chinese regional “push”: there are case studies of Pacific Island countries such as Papua New Guinea (PNG) and Vanuatu, and the actions and policies of major regional players such as the US, Taiwan, Australia and New Zealand are also explored in great depth.
Several key themes emerge. New Zealand, Australia, France and the United States are concerned that Chinese investment in large-scale infrastructure projects and various commercial ventures will lead to a decline in Western influence in the region. Consequently, Australia, the US and New Zealand are committing more resources to the Pacific as they seek to contain the Chinese challenge to the established regional order. As Terence Wesley-Smith and Graeme Smith argue, without this renewed competition for power, viable funding for ambitious projects such as the enhancement of fibre optic communications in Vanuatu “would probably not have been forthcoming” (p. 12). Furthermore, commentators rightly question the assumption that the regional priorities of former colonial powers should govern the response of their Pacific neighbours to Chinese initiatives.
In a standout chapter on “Australia’s Response to China and the Pacific”, Merriden Varrall notes the fear among Australian observers that the debts incurred by Island nations to the Chinese might lead to China using the debt as a lever to obtain political influence in the region: in other words, “debt-trap diplomacy”. Varrall’s essay implies that this fear may be disproportionate:
China holds around 12 per cent of the debt owed by Pacific Island nations and it is only Tonga, Samoa and Vanuatu where Chinese lending makes more than one-third of total debt … China is not the dominant financier in the [Pacific] region …traditional creditors like Japan, the Asia Development Bank and the World Bank play a more significant role. (p. 116).
A number of scholars in this collection sound a note of caution. In some areas, notably PNG, governments have a history of corruption and weak regulation which has led to overseas companies damaging the local environment and riding roughshod over the wishes of local communities. This negative combination of foreign money and lack of proper oversight has recently affected the reputation of a number of Chinese firms. The question of how Pacific Island governments can retain the advantages of overseas investment while ultimately controlling its direction in the national interest remains a “wicked problem” for policy makers.
All chapters are scholarly and highly informative. However, a map of the Pacific region would have assisted reader comprehension of the massive scale of the ocean, as well as the physical isolation of many smaller island areas from major economic powers. There is also an occasional overuse of acronyms, which may serve to deter the general reader.
On a more positive note, there is due emphasis on the historical links between the Chinese diaspora and the Pacific and how this has evolved over the generations. Until the later decades of the twentieth century, ethnic Chinese tended to settle permanently in the region, especially traders and storekeepers who had business acumen and established links to external markets. Because of globalisation, new Chinese migrants are often more temporary and retain social and political links to mainland China. Essays by Patrick Matbob (PNG), Laurentina Barretos Soares (Timor-Leste) and others sensitively highlight the ambivalent relationship between Indigenous people and the Chinese diaspora over several generations.
From an Australian perspective, the book encourages us to think more deeply about our relationship with the Pacific Islands. With some notable exceptions, Australian foreign policy actors have often passionately pursued engagement with Asian countries while being less interested in Pacific islands except in times of extreme crisis. The urgent need for Australian decision-makers to gain greater understanding and awareness of Pacific Island countries and their collective and individual priorities may prove to be the silver lining to the troubling development of great power rivalry in the Indo-Pacific.
 N.B. Varrall is drawing on research published in 2018 and 2019 for her information.