China: 'Beijing - Guardian of the Pacific?''


Michael Powles

This North Asian headline (from the South China Morning Post of 22 February 2007) will have startled the many who consider the Pacific strategically to be, if not still an "American lake", at least an Australian one. (There seems little room for the thought that the Pacific might not be anyone's lake - nor seeking guardians.)

China is said to have explored the region under Admiral Zheng He centuries ago, and indeed much earlier people of Chinese descent moved south through Southeast Asia and out into the Pacific. But not until today has Beijing signalled its clear intention to be a major Pacific power and to wield influence accordingly in its home region.

Some observers welcome this development and look forward to increasing economic opportunities as resource-hungry China seeks more from the region, particularly as it becomes economic to exploit the mineral-rich Pacific ocean floor. Others are less welcoming, warning in one extreme case: "China's move into the South Pacific was clumsy, arrogant and dangerous; Pacific nations need to be careful when dealing with such cynical revolutionary carpetbaggers" (Editorial, Islands Business, Suva, May 2006).

And there are suggestions of a second Cold War in the region as well: "& the Pacific will become the main arena for a second Cold War between the United States and China that will last for decades" (Robert Kaplan, How We Would Fight China, The Atlantic Monthly, June 2006).

What is the evidence so far? The involvement of Chinese interests (often from Southeast Asia) in the logging industry has caused concern; crime perpetrated by Chinese nationals, some of them members of triads, has increased dramatically; and some worry that China's "no strings attached" aid can undermine the good governance conditionality of much Australian and New Zealand aid. So far at least, though, China has played largely by the rules in the region, as it has tended to do internationally - to the annoyance of those in the West who like to talk up the "China threat" rather than discuss rationally the enormous uncertainties and problems facing China and therefore its regional neighbours as well.

On resource exploitation, it looks ahead of course to being able to participate in the exploitation of marine mineral resources. But Premier Wen Jiabao has personally and very explicitly assured Pacific leaders of China's commitment to respect their enormously valuable rights to ocean and seabed resources (Premier Wen Jiabao, Address to the First Ministerial Conference of the China-Pacific Island Countries Economic Development and Cooperation Forum, Nadi, Fiji, 5 April 2006). (In its exploitation of Pacific fisheries China has been as responsible as most distant water fishing countries and more so than some.)

On aid and good governance, while "chequebook diplomacy", particularly by Taiwan, has been a serious problem, China seems to have been careful not to try to take advantage of situations where Australia and New Zealand have angered illegal regimes (as in Fiji) and has actually offered to cooperate closely with them on development issues in the region (Dan Eaton, China extends hand to New Zealand in the Pacific, The Press, 8 November 2006).

Michael Powles is a former Ambassador and Permanent Representative of New Zealand to the United Nations, to China and Indonesia, and High Commissioner to Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru and Tuvalu, while resident in Suva. He is also a former Deputy Secretary for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade with responsibility for the South Pacific, North Asia, the United Nations, the Middle East and Africa.

WATCHPOINT: China's rising influence will require major adjustments in the Pacific, not least for countries like Australia which must naturally look askance at the reality of another player in the region, and a very major one at that. But influencing China's role should be possible and can best be achieved by cooperation rather than confrontation.


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