Security Implications of Geopolitics and Governance in the Pacific – Dalton Lin

The biggest security threat facing Pacific Islanders today is the potentially gloomy ripple effects of the ongoing geopolitical reconfiguration in the Asia-Pacific region. The security of Pacific Islanders relies upon deftly dealing with a variety of daunting issues, such as sustainable economic development and rising sea levels as well as food and water shortage resulting from global warming. To effectively manage these challenges, Pacific Island countries need the capacity of good governance. Unfortunately, looming shifts in the geopolitical landscape of the Asia-Pacific region, including uncertainty in China-Taiwan relations on the horizon and contestation between Beijing and Washington for regional predominance in the longer-term, threaten to seriously undermine the governing capacity of Pacific Island countries.

External geopolitical rivalry could thwart good governance in Pacific Islands countries because patronage money breeds symbiotic relations with local corruption while insulating corrupted politicians from pressures within and without. Intense geopolitical competition drives external powers to flush Pacific Island countries with money aiming solely at buying exclusive political allegiance, and the quickest way to acquire geopolitical followers is by patronizing local elites. Amid its competition with Taiwan for exclusive regional recognition, China’s opaque aid funds to Tonga caused doubts and controversy because the money was negotiated at the political level with minimum input from the civil service. It is not difficult to see how such unscrupulous funds undermined the Pacific Island country’s governing capacity — it sabotaged accountability and transparency while barely meeting the needs of local population. In another case, China lavished Fiji with US$333 million aid in the aftermath of the Pacific Island country’s 2006 coup – just as the United States and its allies (Australia and New Zealand) imposed sanctions in order to pressure Suva to resume a democratic government.

This is not to accuse Chinese aid of always being evil in nature. Instead, it is to show that amid geopolitical jockeying, it is easy for local regimes to play one patron off against another to get rid of strings of good governance attached to foreign aid. To the extreme, intense external geopolitical rivalry could totally disrupt domestic political order in Pacific Island states. In 2004, Vanuatuan Prime Minister Serge Vohor switched the country’s diplomatic allegiance to Taiwan for seven days and saw himself ousted for that reason. Needless to say, such abrupt political turnover undercuts stability and predictability needed for good governing capacity.

The threat of geopolitical rivalry to governance in Pacific Island nations could also be shown from the opposite side of the same coin. As in many other cases of its Pacific aid, Chinese aid in the Cook Islands was plagued by criticisms in the past. However, the Cook Islands government successfully improved its management of Chinese aid in 2012 by requesting a partnership between Beijing and Wellington in a water quality project in Rarotonga. Unsurprisingly, the improvement of governance took place against the backdrop of a “diplomatic truce” between China and Taiwan that allowed “reputation” to ever become a concern in Beijing’s conduct of aid projects.

The effect of the cross-Taiwan Strait diplomatic truce also reveals itself in the fact that China now primarily offers concessional loans instead of outright grants in its aid to Pacific Island nations. Though concessional loans mean heavier financial burdens to Pacific Island debtors, the price mechanism embedded should also encourage more responsible use of the aid money. In a nutshell, a tranquil geopolitical environment is conducive to improving governance in Pacific islands and an asset to Pacific Islanders’ security.

Unfortunately, such benign geopolitical environments might be coming to an end. Taiwan’s 2016 presidential election around the corner is likely to bring a pro-independence party back to power and deprive Taipei and Beijing of the political tacit understanding that is undergirding their current diplomatic truce. If the two were to resume their notorious competition in “checkbook diplomacy,” the influx of unscrupulous money that single-mindedly aims to secure allegiance would only wash away any Pacific Island nations’ attempt of achieving transparency and oversight.

In the broader scope, the looming Sino-U.S. geopolitical competition casts a long shadow over Pacific Islanders’ security. The divergent courses of action taken by China and U.S. allies in the wake of Fiji’s 2006 coup laid bare their disparate interests and values. If the deployment of three Australian warships in Fiji waters before the 2006 coup indicates anything, it shows outside powers are willing to go a long way to secure their regional stakes. Thus when titans clash, reputation in aid is of secondary consideration, and trust is void between rival powers. Pacific Island nations should be prepared to embrace more political disturbance under such geopolitical hostility. The shock waves of intense geopolitical competition could wreak havoc on Pacific Island nations’ fragile governing capacity and undermine Pacific Islanders’ ability to deal with other security challenges.

In sum, looming geopolitical rivalry between outside actors threatens to undercut Pacific Island nations’ governance and thus poses the greatest security threat to Pacific Islanders. For certain, Pacific Islanders need to assume the majority of responsibility for establishing good governance of their own countries. However, a return to the entrenched symbiotic relations between foreign money and local corruption and the mutual reinforcement of outside patronization and domestic deficient governance will make the uphill task even more daunting.

Dalton Kuen-Da Lin specializes in international relations theories of bargaining between major and lesser powers, with an area focus on China and the Asia-Pacific region. His current research theorizes how great powers distribute patronage on their periphery to maximize regional influence. His English and Chinese language publications have appeared in Ballots & Bullets, Taipei Perspective, Thought Leaders, and the United Daily News. His research has been supported by the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation for International Scholarly Exchange, Taiwan’s Ministry of Education, the Fulbright Scholar Program of the U.S. State Department, and the China Times Cultural Foundation, among others. He has held research affiliations at the Carter Center and the Institute of Political Science at Academia Sinica. Since 2008, he has served as the Executive Editor of the Taiwan Security Research, a nonpartisan website aggregating and disseminating information on current events related to regional security issues surrounding Taiwan. Dalton holds a B.A. from the National Taiwan University and a M.A. from Australian National University (with High Distinction). He receives his Ph.D. degree in political science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2015.

Guest commentaries and responses on the Islands Society Blog represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed. Please send any responses to pr@islandssociety.org. Our editors will consider any and all responses for future publication.

Image Credit: U.S. Department of Defense via Flickr CC

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