Looking North, Looking South: China, Taiwan, and the South Pacific

Looking North, Looking South

Author(s): Anne-Marie Brady

ISBN: 978-981-4304-38-2

Publisher: World Scientific Publishing

Year: 2010

Price: $94.00

Reviewed by Kristin Mulready-Stone, Assistant Professor of History, Kansas State University.

In the context of a rising China and the accompanying concern among its neighbors and other countries about whether China’s rise is truly peaceful or a cause for alarm, Brady’s edited volume on China’s interactions with 14 Pacific Island nations provides valuable insight into China’s role in today’s world and reasonable speculation on how that role might evolve in the coming decades.

The book’s title, Looking North, Looking South: China, Taiwan, and the South Pacific, refers to the Pacific Island nations’ (Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu) looking north to China for aid and investment, as opposed to their more traditional practice of looking to the West (former imperialist powers in Europe and the United States) or to Japan, Australia, or New Zealand.  Looking South refers to China and Taiwan looking to the Pacific Islands for opportunities to invest and edge each other out in competition for diplomatic recognition, particularly during the presidency of Chen Shui-bian in Taiwan from 2000-2008.  In the preface, Brady clearly states that the purpose of the volume “is not to come down on one side or the other of the arguments about China and Taiwan’s activities in the region, but rather to let the reader come to their own conclusions,” (p. vii).  The justification for a close examination of the South Pacific Islands’ relations with China and Taiwan is that “Only 23 countries continue to recognize the ROC [Republic of China, or Taiwan], which makes the six nations in the South Pacific who have diplomatic relations with Taiwan disproportionately important to both the ROC and the PRC [People’s Republic of China],” (p.vii).

One of the great strengths of the book is that readers can gain a sense of China’s and Taiwan’s motivations and operations vis-à-vis small countries such as those in the South Pacific without their relations with the United States, Europe, and Japan always dominating the scene.  Certainly many of the ten chapters devote some space to the region’s relationship with the world’s most developed countries, but a majority of the chapters focus more on the Pacific Islands’ interactions with the PRC and ROC.  In most scholarship and media accounts of China’s international relations, the influence of powerful and industrialized countries is ever-present and therefore prevents a close analysis of how China interacts with small, underdeveloped states that do not have significant natural resources.  This book is a departure from that standard approach.

The book is divided into three sections: Part One: China and Taiwan’s South Pacific Rivalry, Part Two: The Impact on Other Key Pacific Players, and Part Three: Chinese Foreign Policy in the Pacific: Two Perspectives.  Although the three sections address different aspects of the Pacific Islands’ interactions with China and, to a lesser extent, Taiwan, many themes recur throughout all three.  As a whole, the book addresses several key issues with respect to China’s expanding influence in the world, as viewed through Chinese actions in the South Pacific.  Some of the questions the authors raise include whether the United States’ decreased presence in the South Pacific is a mistake that opens a door to Chinese influence (Chap. 1, “The South Pacific: China’s New Frontier,” by Bertil Lintner; Chap. 6, “Rising Chinese Influence in the South Pacific: Beijing’s Island Fever,’ by Tamara Renee Shie; Chap. 8, “New Zealand, the Pacific and China: The Challenges Ahead,” by Anne-Marie Brady and John Henderson; Chap. 10, “The South Pacific in China’s Grand Strategy,” by Jian Yang), whether China’s efforts to gain more allies among the Pacific Islands nations is related to the disproportionate power that these small countries could exercise with their votes in the United Nations and other international organizations (Chap. 2, “The Software of China-Pacific Island Relations,” by Ron Crocombe; Chap. 4, “China: Stumbling Through the Pacific?” by Fergus Hanson; Chap. 6, “Rising Chinese Influence in the South Pacific: Beijing’s Island Fever,” by Tamara Renee Shie; Chap. 8, “New Zealand, the Pacific and China: The Challenges Ahead,” by Anne-Marie Brady and John Henderson), whether China has been seeking increased influence in the South Pacific because of the enormous amount of “sea areas” these countries control – thus giving China the potential to move freely through South Pacific waters for fishing and strategic purposes (Chap. 1, “The South Pacific: China’s New Frontier,” by Bertil Lintner; Chap. 10, “The South Pacific in China’s Grand Strategy,” by Jian Yang) – and whether the countries in the South Pacific are reorienting themselves away from the West and toward Asia economically, culturally and diplomatically (Chap. 2, “The Software of China-Pacific Island Relations,” by Ron Crocombe; Chap. 4, “China: Stumbling Through the Pacific?” by Fergus Hanson; Chap. 5, “The Security Implications of Cross-Strait Competition in the South Pacific from a Taiwanese Perspective,” by Cheng-yi Lin; Chap. 7, “Big Trouble in Little Chinatown: Australia, Taiwan and the Aprill 2006 Post-Election Riot in Solomon Islands,” by Joel Atkinson; Chap. 8, “New Zealand, the Pacific and China: The Challenges Ahead,” by Anne-Marie Brady and John Henderson).

Of central importance is that China and Taiwan were engaged in a long-term competition for diplomatic recognition from South Pacific Island nations prior to the diplomatic truce that came in 2008, when the Nationalist Party returned to power in Taiwan under President Ma Ying-jeou.  The diplomatic truce was already in effect when the book was published, so the frequent emphasis on diplomatic competition at times seems outdated in today’s context; nevertheless, it serves as a useful reminder that the competition and cross-strait tensions that were so prevalent during Chen Shui-bian’s presidency could resume, especially if the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) should regain power in Taiwan.  As Brady and John Henderson explain in chapter 8:

The informal ‘truce’ will only last as long as Beijing feels satisfied that Taipei is moving towards reunification with the Chinese Mainland.  Since the Ma government is playing for time on the reunification issue, there is bound to be an eventual clash between Beijing’s goals and Taipei’s domestic political interests, (p. 196).

The most serious impact of Sino-Taiwanese diplomatic competition in the South Pacific up to 2008 was that checkbook diplomacy lent itself to governmental corruption, influenced electoral outcomes, and in some cases had such a destabilizing effect that it contributed to the collapse of individual leaders or entire governments, such as in the Solomon Islands, Kiribati, and Vanuatu (pp.199-200).  It is worth remembering that the relative stability in the PRC-ROC relationship today is by no means guaranteed to last.

The authors also draw some preliminary conclusions about China as a rising power with growing influence.  In Chapter 4, “China: Stumbling Through the Pacific?”, Fergus Hanson concludes that China still has a great deal to learn about how to conduct itself as a world power, as evidenced by its unwillingness to engage in coordination of aid with other countries to prevent duplication, publish any figures on aid, or focus on well-designed aid with long-term, rather than short-term, benefits (pp.95-100).  In Chapter 9, “Chinese Foreign Policy in Asia: Implications for the South Pacific,” with respect to the potential for China to serve as the leader of an influential Asia in international affairs, Phillip C. Saunders asserts that “If Asia were able to act collectively, it could rival the geopolitical weight of North America and Europe,” while acknowledging the Asia lacks the “strong regional institutions” that produced the European Union (EU) which, when combined with a wide range of cultural, religious, political and strategic differences across the region will make it far more difficult for Asian countries to act in concert (p.230).  Furthermore, “China’s efforts to provide reassurance of its benign intentions has had significant impact, but Asian states still have significant concerns,” (p.244) that prevent them from getting too close to China.

In the end, Looking North, Looking South remains true to its stated intention to present a range of positions and not to take a particular side on the issue of PRC and ROC influence in the region.  However the presence of Taiwan in the book’s subtitle, which implies that it would play a prominent role in this book, is misleading.  Taiwan appears from time-to-time, and figures quite prominently in Joel Atkinson’s chapter on regional competition between Taiwan and Australia.  But overall,  there is no balance of coverage between China and Taiwan in this volume; instead, it focuses far more on the PRC’s actions, motivations, and priorities than on those of Taiwan.  At times, Taiwan is overlooked or seems to be an afterthought.  Given the PRC’s rising status and efforts to project power well beyond its borders, it is only appropriate for the PRC to play a far more substantial role than Taiwan in this book, but readers who might expect extensive coverage of Taiwanese affairs will be disappointed.

An unexpected – and perhaps unintended – strength of the book is its potential to be useful to those of us who teach the history of imperialism and sometimes struggle to come up with substantial reading materials appropriate for undergraduates on what forms imperialism takes in the contemporary world.  The PRC denies any imperialist intent in its interactions with any part of the world, including Africa and Latin America, even though many analysts disagree.  But Looking North, Looking South highlights elements of Chinese interactions with the South Pacific Island nations that can be interpreted as indirect, peripheral, economic, and cultural imperialism.  There is plenty of room for debate on these issues, which can be a great advantage in fostering discussion in undergraduate classes.

Although there is not much in this volume that will serve as new information to specialists on China and Taiwan, some of the particular perspectives that are featured in this book will be quite useful to specialist and non-specialist alike.  China’s aid patterns, overseas construction, importation of Chinese laborers for such construction projects, efforts to exert influence through the Overseas Chinese community, the power of Chinese wealth through tourism, and the potential for China to build up support for its initiatives in international organizations by fostering positive relations with small countries are all explored in this volume in a context different from those we are accustomed to reading about.  For those who do not have specialized knowledge of the Pacific Island nations, the attempt to address different conditions in so many different countries can be confusing and leads to contradictory conclusions about China’s influence and role in the region.  But overall, this book is a worthwhile read that provides a fresh and welcome perspective about a country that is daily in the news and how it operates in the South Pacific.