Contrary to popular perception about their political “passivity,” Pacific Island Countries (PICs) have developed very tactical, shrewd and calculating approaches to how they respond to the often ignorant and patronizing attitudes of foreign powers. It is against this backdrop, for countries like Australia and China, that the effectiveness of their engagement with PICs is determined.
One image the media has constructed is that of “impoverished” islanders, prone to a cult-movement type mentality and always craving for handouts. These myths conceal the salience of Pacific agency, in particular how the PICs leverage their “smallness” to maximise the economic and political benefits to themselves and bridge the power disparity between them and countries such as Australia, China, New Zealand and United States.
One way this has played out is through what may be termed competitive geo-political bidding, which refers to the way PICs respond to external pressure by leveraging foreign powers against one another. Many PICs have diversified their diplomatic links and geopolitical alliances and have developed multi-pronged foreign policies, which make them well-positioned in the larger regional geopolitical game.
China’s growing influence in the region has only further sharpened this geopolitical bidding game. China’s approach is inspired by its “Belt and Road” global initiative, while Australia’s approach is tied up with protecting what it claims to be its turf. Despite Australia’s dismay that China’s incursion has put a dent in its influence, the reality is that Australia’s connection to the region is deeply embedded in longstanding historical, socio-cultural and economic links. In comparison, Chinese aid and influence is relatively surface-level.
With their relations with Australia secure and given the need to expand their economic and diplomatic interests, as well as their concerns about climate change, it makes political sense for PICs to seek out other international relationships. China is a natural go-to “friend” because of the large Chinese population in the Pacific whose origin dates back to the 1800s. China is also a “developing” state, whose experiences and views are assumed to be compatible with those of other developing states, including those in the Pacific. It shouldn’t therefore be surprising that the Sinophobic utterances by Australia are often ignored: China is not seen as a threat, but as a friend. Many PICs are familiar with the political intentions behind the anti-Chinese narratives because they have memories of similar anti-Soviet propaganda during the Cold War and are aware of their ideologically manipulative motivations.
External powers competing for recognition have tried to mobilize support amongst the PICs to ensure backing for their causes through UN votes, since as a bloc the small Pacific Island states hold sizeable sway. China and Taiwan have been engaged in chequebook diplomacy for years and more recently Russia and Georgia joined in the fray and so too have Israel and the Arab League. This plays well into the hands of the PICs because it provides them with a leveraging arsenal to engage with a certain degree of autonomy with foreign powers.
Fiji in particular has been notably proficient in this global bidding game. It engages with China as well as Australia and New Zealand with no small degree of tactical leveraging. Although it is generally assumed that Fiji had been “bought off” by China, recent events — such as awarding of the bid to upgrade a military base in Nadi to Australia rather than China, as well as the termination of a Chinese company’s tourism project due to environmental issues, and the issuing of road building contracts to both New Zealand and Chinese companies — testify to its rather complex and unpredictable foreign policy approach.
An area where Chinese aid has advantage over Australian aid is the deployment of political symbolism. Australian aid is based largely on institutional reform and tends to be “invisible” to ordinary people, while Chinese aid, in the form of large public infrastructure projects, tends to resonate well with the Pacific cultural notions of “visibility” and “loudness.” In most Pacific cultural ceremonies, genealogical ties and material contributions are often publicly declared for all to see and hear. For instance, mats, pigs and root crops are presented and acknowledged publicly to be “seen” and “heard” as evidence of genealogical loyalty and communal solidarity. Thus size and visibility do matter. Chinese aid, despite the inferior quality of their structures, fits into this cultural psychology well: it is as if the Chinese had employed anthropologists and sociologists to carry out an ethnographic study of Pacific cultures as prerequisite for their aid disbursement. This is in contrast to Australia whose aid and foreign policy directions are driven by economists and political scientists whose narrow focus ignore the realities of everyday cultural dynamics which shape people’s perceptions and behaviour.
Another dent in Australia’s reputation is that it is seen as noncommittal in addressing climate change, an issue which is central to the developmental, wellbeing and survival needs of PICs. There is also a perception that Australia tends to be more condescending, patronizing and arrogant than the Chinese, not so much in terms of the use of explicit threats such as the ones used by the US, but in terms of subconscious attitudes and behaviour. This leads many in the Pacific to view New Zealanders, because of their bi-cultural policies and principles, as more tolerant of Pacific cultures.
Often the actual response and intent of Pacific island states is not apparent because leaders sometimes use the tactic of silence as a way of communicating both consent and disapproval. Amongst many Pacific cultures, silence does not necessarily mean compliance, passivity or docility, as some outsiders may assume, but, depending on the context, could be an expression of dissent, disagreement and even anger. Silence by the PICs in the face of Sinophobic diatribe may be a result of cultural filtering and a “yeah, right” dismissive response. Australia would do better to understand the subconscious cultural codes and respond in the appropriate manner. Engaging more anthropologists and sociologists would be a good way forward. Silence as a cultural code also works effectively in the context of the Pacific Islands Forum where “consensus” rather than majority decision through voting is the dominant mode of decision-making. Consensus does not necessarily mean that there is always 100 percent agreement, as members may often avoid “rocking the boat” with unnecessary debate and tension, but may still express dissent by remaining silent, even if ultimately not disrupting the formal consensus.
When the circumstances demand, PICs may also play the victimhood game to maximize their gains from the competitive geopolitical bidding game. This would play directly into the ego of large donors such as Australia and New Zealand, who are more than happy to play Superman to save the “victims” from the jaws of poverty.
In the complex geopolitical game of competitive bidding, actors will play strategically to serve the purposes they most value, and this may involve playing foreign powers against one another. For PICs, this is a way they can maintain “balance” in a situation where power is often tilted against them.
Professor Steven Ratuva is director of the Macmillan Brown Center for Pacific Studies and professor in the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at the University of Canterbury. He is chair of the International Political Science Association Research Committee on Security, Conflict and Democratization and leads a number of international research projects on global ethnicity and global security. He is a former Fulbright senior fellow at UCLA, Duke University and Georgetown University and has interdisciplinary interests in security, ethnicity, geopolitics, affirmative action, development, social protection, conflict and peace-building.
This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.