Steven Ratuva: Pacific agency: A devalued political capital?

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Chinese diplomacy in the Pacific
What diplomacy is all about: putting on different masks when the circumstances require ... As it turned out, the Pacific nations “won” the diplomatic battle. Image: Al Jazeera

ANALYSIS: By Professor Steven Ratuva

The West and China continue to exert influence over the Pacific region. But discussions of Pacific Island Countries (PICs) are increasingly patronising, framing them as vulnerable, and omitting their agency.

In the battle for geopolitical influence and supremacy in the Pacific, the two most visible antagonists, the Anglo-West and China, are often the only two sides which matter to the mainstream media and political discourse.

The third side, the Pacific Big Ocean States (BOSs), are often forgotten, or relegated to the margin. In a subconscious way, this hierarchy of significance has roots in the colonial discourse which continued to undermine Pacific agency in various ways to this day.

As an example, the recent whirlwind visit to the region by China’s Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, caused media outcry and desperate diplomatic visitations — the political ripples spread far and wide provoking narratives of indignation, anxiety, and outright anger among the Anglo-Western states.

China responded by using tactical diplomatic language to tone down and conceal its own global expansionist agenda under the Belt and Road initiative. Both sides tried their best to project their humane and empathetic imagery towards the Pacific people while concealing their respective geopolitical, ideological, and strategic interests.

This is exactly what diplomacy is all about: putting on different masks when the circumstances require.

As it turned out, the BOSs “won” the diplomatic battle. They rejected China’s hegemonic and all-consuming plan to form a multilateral regional bloc in the form of the “China-Pacific Countries Common Development Vision,” as well as pushed back on the Anglo-Western insistence on keeping away from Chinese offerings.

Bilateral agreements
In the end, Pacific leaders signed bilateral agreements with China, based on specific developmental, economic, and wellbeing needs of individual states.

Bilateral agreements are common in international relations. The United States, Australia, and Aotearoa New Zealand all have bilateral economic agreements with China as part of their economic lifeline as modern states. Likewise, BOSs are also seeking economic agreements for their survival and why should they be discouraged from engaging with China or any other country in this regard?

There is a subtle ring of patronisation and paternalism here. The Anglo-Western states see the Pacific as their “natural” habitat which should not be shared with anyone else because that’s where they sent explorers, missionaries, and settlers, had colonies, fought against the Japanese invaders,  tested their nuclear bombs, built military bases, and exerted significant cultural influence.

During the Cold War, the Pacific was often described as the “American Lake” because it was literally littered with US military and naval bases.

Despite decolonisation in the region, this feeling of false imperial grandeur still persists in various subconscious forms. For instance, being lectured on the evils of China by the Anglo-West is almost like saying that the BOSs are not smart, strong, and sophisticated enough to stand up to China’s manipulative intents.

Aid, which is used to counter Chinese influence, often ends up benefiting the donor countries such as Australia and New Zealand because the contractors are largely from those countries.

On the other hand, China’s low quality infrastructure and debt-creating loans seem to suggest the rather patronising “beggars cannot be choosers” attitude. Chinese influence is far more cunningly subtle through its “soft power” long term approach compared to the rather abrupt short term approach of the Anglo-Saxon powers.

Common colonial experiences
China has strategically invoked the South-South discourse to engage with BOSs hoping that they will see each other as “developing” countries who share common colonial experiences of Western colonialism.

Whether the BOSs buy this ideological bait is another question. By and large, BOSs still see China as a highly industrialised state with lots of goodies to dangle and benefit from, and not so much as a fellow “poor” Global South brethren.

One of the ironies of history is that colonialism, apart from creating a culture of subservience, has also deeply embedded a strong pro-Anglo-Western cultural orientation amongst the BOSs, despite moments of political and ideological resistance. Most Pacific people speak English, go through Anglo-Western education, are readily exposed to Anglo-Western cultural influences such as music, Hollywood movies, and other forms of ideological hegemony, and have close connections with their neighbours such as Australia, New Zealand, and the USA, where they migrate for various reasons.

These factors have created a deep sense of connection with the Anglo-Western world, a reality which China will never be able to replicate, or even challenge, in the next 20 years, despite its extensive “soft power” machinations.

The BOSs’ engagement with China is more economic and diplomatic and less cultural, although this has been on the increase through scholarship offerings and the establishment of Confucius institutions, among other strategies. BOSs frame their engagement with China on the basis of need rather than ideological alignment as is often assumed and misrepresented by their Anglo-Western neighbours. They are able to play the diplomatic and geopolitical game in subtle and smart ways that keep the big powers guessing and sometimes worried.

The reality is that while individual BOSs may sign bilateral agreements with China, none of them will allow itself to become China’s patron state, the same way that the US has been creating buffer and client states around the world. This is because, as they probably know, the cost of assimilation into China’s sphere of influence will be massive and they have a lot to lose.

Some BOSs have adopted a “Look North Policy” and in recent years Pacific students have travelled  to China for studies, Pacific businesses have sold their products to the Chinese market, and states have engaged in bilateral or multilateral deals with the Asian power. This should be seen as part of the diplomatic diversification process rather than a colonising project.

Just another partner
The reality is that China will always become just another partner and not the alternative to the Anglo-Western connection. Most Pacific people will opt to migrate to New Zealand, US, or Australia, rather than China.

This is where the anxiety and fear of the Anglo-Western countries about a Chinese “takeover” is not just misplaced, but utterly irrational. It does not consider the agency of the BOSs to wisely, strategically, and imaginatively navigate their way through the treacherous geopolitical waters. The overreaction by the Anglo-Western bloc about potential Chinese influence sends out a rather unsavoury message about “bullying” and “colonial attitude.”

This is reinforced by insults such as that by former Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison that the Pacific is Australia’s “backyard” or the racist insinuation by Heather du Plessis-Allan (a right-wing New Zealand journalist) that Pacific people are “leeches,” or the unkind and patronising labelling by some Australian academics and policy thinkers of the Pacific as an “Arc of Instability.”

Residues of neo-colonial perception are consciously and subconsciously entrenched in the Anglo-Western perception of the BOSs. This has a long history. The Pacific Island Labourers Act 1901, an offshoot of the White Australian policy, was designed to remove Pacific people from Australia.

In New Zealand, the Dawn Raid era of the mid-1970s and early 1980s saw the arrest, harassment, and removal of Pacific peoples who were unwanted in New Zealand. The then  Australian Immigration Minister Jim Forbes said in May 1971 that “Pacific Islanders are unsophisticated and unsuited to settlement in Australia.”

Pacific people have always been treated as dispensable entities who need to be kept out, only invited in to support their economy as cheap dispensable labour. This philosophy and practice, which started during the Australian labour trade in the 1800s and in New Zealand in the 1950s and 60s, continues today in both countries under the seasonal labour scheme.

Times have changed and it’s important for our bigger members of the Vuvale (family)  to engage with their Pacific neighbours as equal partners, not subordinate and unsophisticated backyard children. The BOS’s agency needs full recognition as capable of making their own mind and plotting their trajectory towards the future they desire.

The old order where colonial paternalism, imperial patronage, racialised narratives, and belittling perceptions shaped relationships no longer have any place. The Anglo-Western countries in the region are good at ticking the UN Sustainable Development boxes such as equity, diversity, and inclusion (SDG10), but they hardly  practice these in meaningful ways.

No matter how well these subtle manoeuvres are diplomatically concealed, these still cannot escape the gaze of Pacific BOSs because they live with it all the time.  Time for a dramatic attitudinal transformation.

Steven Ratuva is a professor and interdisciplinary scholar and director of the Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies at the University of Canterbury, Aotearoa New Zealand. This article was first published by the Australian Institute of International Affairs under a Creative Commons Licence and is republished with the author’s permission.

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