Plotting a longer course

It’s no mystery why there’s an increased sense of urgency in news and commentary regarding China’s every move. Deng’s oft-quoted admonition to ‘hide your brightness; bide your time’ has become increasingly threadbare over the last decade.

We have yet to see any irrevocable actions by the CCP, but it does seem clear that the tempo of their engagement is increasing. It’s often hard to see a coherent plan in China’s decade-long drive to expand its influence, but even without one, it’s obvious the point is to dominate.

They don’t want a place at the table; they want the table itself.

That means coopting the international mechanisms that might place limits on its dominance, and diminishing the power of any nation that might contest their pre-eminence.

Australia—and to a lesser degree, New Zealand—have found themselves at the increasingly sharp end of a shoving match between the USA and China. Donald Trump’s illogical and strategy-free dust-up with his rival may actually have distracted and diffused China’s own plans, pulling them into a tit-for-tat trade war they likely didn’t want.

But opportunism has been the hallmark of Xi’s foreign policy pretty much from the start. He’s been happy to pave the most-trodden trails that his billionaires and generals have blazed and call it a (Silk) road. Sure he’s chastised those who, like Jack Ma, have wandered too far, but for all his voluminous Thought, he hasn’t really promulgated a clear vision beyond a vaguely Trumpian ‘China First’ stance.

That might be enough. The world stood by and watched Hong Kong fall. Germany has discovered that trade is the better part of valour. New Zealand has scuttled behind the ferns, hoping to escape notice. And Australia is feeling increasingly isolated and vulnerable, with no clear plan of its own, and few clear assurances from its traditional allies.

In tense times, it’s hard to resist the feeling that you should be doing something, or that what you’re already doing isn’t working.

China’s recent moves in Hong Kong, India, the South China Sea, near Taiwan and in its international trade relations are all designed either to incrementally advance its own position, or to incrementally diminish that of its rivals. They are designed to make our fear of escalation preclude any retaliation at all.

It’s a common tactic, used by most powerful nations at one point or other. It’s specifically what a Rules-Based Order is designed to curtail. When we accept that there are objective limits to behaviour, the ability to bluster and bluff is diminished. Retaliation is placed outside the bilateral relationship, and is applied in a predictable and repeatable manner.

China’s not the first to deviate from this regime. They’re just the ones who are clear about wanting to be quit of it.

No, wait: That’s not accurate. They want to replace the Western rule set with their own.

For decades, the world has watched the USA diligently applying trade rules, treaties and international law to every problem but its own. It has championed the development and maturation of the WTO, the UN and countless other institutions. And it has flouted them with equal energy and aplomb.

Their (mostly) unspoken role from the start has been to maintain order, not to subject themselves to it.

To a lesser degree, this is the path that Australia has followed.

In the Pacific in particular, Australian foreign policy has been served with large helpings of ‘do as I say, not as I do.’ For all its claims that its aid is benevolent and altruistic, it becomes negotiable and subject to review the instant Australian national interests are challenged.

In fairness, there’s been a lot more carrot than stick over the last five years. The Pacific Step Up has consisted largely of fatter budgets and more attention to Pacific island priorities, often at the expense of broader global engagement.

This is a direct response to the more transactional approach taken by China when dispensing foreign assistance. With one major proviso, it can be described simply as ‘Be a good friend, and be rewarded.’

The proviso is that, as I hinted above, Xi isn’t always driving the agenda. Commercial interests play an oversize role here. CCECC is arguably more influential than the CCP in the Pacific. Kickbacks, incentives and fat contracts are honey to our political classes, and to Chinese contractors who are increasingly desperate to keep the income flowing.

But again, Xi’s schtick is to pave the pathways and call it policy.

After China pulled Solomon Islands out of Taiwan’s orbit, there was some speculation about what would happen to MPs’ constituency development funds. These funds have grown over the last two decades to achieve an outsized importance in the political landscape. They dominate the budget. They create a significant incumbency factor. In the past, MPs had a slightly more than 50 percent chance of being re-elected. In recent years, the return rate is over 75 percent.

As one academic put it, you either have to be an incumbent or rich to stand a chance of being elected.

Taiwan was largely responsible for creating these funds, but spent the better part of a decade extricating itself from them. By the time it left, its contribution to the CDF was negligible. The Chinese were reportedly hesitant to support them at all, but that stance seems to have shifted. It may be that they see the benefits of being greeted by the same faces every time they come calling.

It’s been rumoured that they’re considering exporting the tactic, too. As early as March this year, we may see an announcement concerning Chinese ODA being given directly to Vanuatu MPs. If this happens—and that’s still a live question—it would likely coincide with a trip to China for some of them.

China’s increased reliance on grants and gifts rather than commercial or concessional loans is an indication that the CCP is willing to nationalise what were primarily commercial relationships.

The question of how to counter what’s perceived to be a tightening grip on Pacific power elites is, quite rightly, a pressing concern in Canberra. There is an increasingly loud chorus arguing they should fight fire with fire. The same kind of transactional approach should be taken. Individual MPs, ministers and power brokers should be wooed away from China. Not for reasons of ideology or national interest, but simply because Australia is the better friend.

This will no doubt appeal to Scott Morrison, who excels at building personal relationships, and who downplays principle in the face of politics.

There’s a certain logic to playing to his strengths. But he should resist it. The reason is simple: If it comes down to a bidding war, Australia will lose.

The only way to win is not to play.

It’ll be tricky, trying to find the balance. But Australia’s national interest is best served by sticking to principle, to making the International Rules Based Order stronger, not weaker. And that means subjecting itself to those Rules, too.

Climate change is a global imperative, and must be recognised as such.

Australia may have a momentary respite in trade and diplomatic pressure as China re-orients to face smarter, more coherent opposition from the USA. It should use that time to reformulate and re-energise its support for democratic principles. That means renewed institutional support for large-scale labour mobility and freedom of movement generally, good governance processes, stronger media relations, backstopping security and strategic concerns, and Being There when disaster strikes.

Australia’s longer-term commitments in the areas of health, education security and governance often go overlooked. That’s because they’re designed to be low-key, driven by local actors, and responsive to local needs. But most of its successes have come from here.

A few of its failures have too, but they too tend to be less visible. Better still, they’re correctable. Longer timelines make recalibration not only easier, but inevitable.

Scott Morrison needs to see beyond his own tenure as Prime Minister in order to navigate Australian competition with China in the Pacific. That means DFAT and Defence primarily will have to do some quick work to plot a longer course in the face of a rapidly shifting geopolitical landscape.

The Village Explainer is a semi-regular newsletter containing analysis and insight focusing on under-reported aspects of Pacific societies, politics and economics.

US Defence Strategy for the Pacific Islands

This is just a footnote to the much more informed and insightful analysis by Rory Medcalf of the recently declassified US Defence paper on the Indo-Pacific.

Buried down below many other details is an expression of the desire to “Solidify our diplomatic, military, intelligence, economic, development assistance, and information advantages across the Pacific islands.”

Those islands, somewhat curiously, are listed as the “US Territories, Freely Associated States, Melanesia and Polynesia”. So I guess Kiribati and Tuvalu can wait. (Of course they’ll be included, but it’s indicative of the knowledge deficit that currently exists in Washington.)

Of all the items that need solidifying, I’d suggest that ‘information advantages’ need it most. Building more familiarity with the dynamics in Pacific island nations, cultures, organisations and sub-regions is a rewarding undertaking. It’s pretty low-cost, and can be achieved in a number of ways.

Mostly it’s just a matter of actually being here. Getting a first-hand look at the scene became a priority for James Mattis when he became Secretary of Defence. He sent two top DoD officials on fact-finding tours, and followed up with lower-level visits. Following his departure, the torch seems to have been passed to White House National Security Council, who sent Matt Pottinger on a round of the islands. He later became Deputy NSA.

Pottinger recently made the news by resigning in protest against Trump’s despotic coup attempt. From a selfish perspective, that’s kind of a shame, because he could have been an effective advocate for what Professor Medcalf suggests is an ongoing attempt to ensure that the Biden administration will stay the Indo-Pacific course.

There are several steps that could go a long way to rebuilding ‘information advantage’ around here. Travel, tourism, trade and cultural exchanges are all trivially easy to ramp up (relative to military spending, at least).

Airline subsidies, budget support for tourism-related infrastructure development, and spending on media and the arts are all areas where even a few millions dollars could make a startling difference for a Pacific island country.

Providing a diplomatic backstop for Pacific efforts concerning climate change would also breed a lot of positive karma here. Especially so if American clout were used to gently inch Australia toward a slightly more sane climate posture.

Easing the onerous—and for most people, effectively prohibitive—visa requirements for prospective visitors to the USA could also be easily done, and because there are so few of us, it would have almost zero impact on domestic views on travel and immigration.

Television shows and movies regularly featuring Pacific content have a proven audience. Just ask Disney, or Jason Momoa, or Dwayne Johnson. With New Zealand just a short flight from most locations, the logistics of shooting here are easier to manage today than ever before.

Direct participation in international law enforcement work, and especially in the Cybercrime Fusion Centre planned for Port Vila, would go a long way to building trust between partners and instilling more understanding and respect for rule of law.

And this may seem trivial, but expanding—and in some cases, re-establishing—the presence of the Peace Corps in the Pacific would also have a significantly positive impact at the community level here. And as anyone who’s ever lived in the Pacific knows, everything happens at the community level here.

The recent string of visits to Pacific nations by senior American officials represented the highest-level of engagement many of our countries have seen since WWII. It should be continued. If the declassification of this defence strategy document does nothing else for us, that alone could still be counted as a win.

One last note. Rory Medcalf notes a gap in the strategy document: a failure to anticipate “the challenge of Chinese influence in the South Pacific” which he characterises as “an indication that Canberra’s activism there is an Australian initiative”. I’d be inclined to agree, though with a different inflection.

Australian alarm at the perceived potential for Chinese military expansion into a patch they considered their own was almost certainly a contributing factor for Sec. Mattis’ decision to get his own eyes on the problem. I read that as a sceptical response to Australian concerns then, and I suspect the failure to rank it as a significant threat in this document means their assessment didn’t match Canberra’s.

The decision to declassify this document helps promote Pacific island interests. I only hope there are people here willing and able to follow up, people who are not afraid to ask for more.

The Village Explainer is a semi-regular newsletter containing analysis and insight focusing on under-reported aspects of Pacific societies, politics and economics.

Ain’t no 3rd World No More

If nothing else, we can hope that the ongoing shitshow in Washington will serve as a reminder that the trope of corruption-ridden Third World autocracies is false. And if we take that lesson to heart, we need to consider what that does to the assumptions ruling much of development theory—and indeed in defining what development even is.

Back in 2015, the decision of Speaker and acting head of state Marcellino Pipite to pardon himself and 13 other partners in crime was treated by the international press with supercilious glee. It will be interesting to see whether the USA will be as successful at countering such a threat to their democracy as we were then.

More than a few people in the Pacific and elsewhere have challenged developed countries’ right to define good governance, and to prescribe how it can be achieved in young democracies.

A number of them are quick to criticise because they don’t want to be held accountable. But an equal or greater number sincerely question the moral right of more powerful countries to dictate norms.

China was arguably the first wealthy country with a presence in the Pacific to pull away from this behaviour. Their transactional approach to bilateral relations was welcomed by some politicians—mostly those who were tired of being lectured to. They appreciated the deference shown to them. They appreciated being treated as equals.

Prime Minister Charlot Salwai attended an international conference on ‘Global Economic Governance Innovation’ on his first visit to Beijing. On each of several visits, he was treated to the same pomp and circumstance accorded to any other head of government.

Decisions concerning development priorities and use of Chinese grant funds were not negotiated. The amounts and timing were, but not how they were used.

I once pressed the Chinese Ambassador for an explanation of why China agreed to gift our much-maligned conference centre to the nation. He insisted it was entirely the government’s choice.

“I asked them, ‘Are you sure?’” he said. “They said yes.”

He shrugged and smiled helplessly. Co-owning the bad ones is the price of showing respect for the government’s decisions.

Despite—or perhaps because of—its pride of place in the Pacific development landscape, Australia had never invited a Vanuatu prime minister to visit. Not at least until increasingly frantic representations from the local high commission were finally heeded. Malcolm Turnbull finally welcomed Mr Salwai to Australia in mid-2018.

Parochialism has always underpinned assumptions about development. From Bob Geldof’s well-intentioned but snide suggestion that wealthy nations should let starving Africans know it’s Christmas to the parachute aid mechanisms developed by international NGOs, and so accurately lampooned by the anonymous author of the Hand Relief International blog. I expect it will survive us.

There’s been more than a little holier-than-thouness among the chorus of adherents to a Rules Based Order that seems quick to impose expectations on others that are not being met at home.

But last week’s events have highlighted the fact that democracy is a process, not a product. It can’t easily be packaged for export, although it appears to be susceptible to purchase.

If only one thing that emerges from this horrorshow, let’s pray for a collective realisation that democracy:

  1. Costs a lot;

  2. never stops costing a lot;

  3. takes constant effort;

  4. cannot be taken for granted; and

  5. is vastly better than the alternatives.

There are signs that some people, at least, are beginning to see the world differently, and are realising that Us is just Them viewed from a different angle. On Friday, dozens of US State Department officials called for a communiqué to:

“explicitly denounce President Trump’s role in this violent attack on the US Government. Just as we routinely denounce foreign leaders who use violence and intimidation to interfere in peaceful democratic processes and override the will of their voters, the Department’s public statements about this episode should also mention President Trump by name. It is critical that we communicate to the world that in our system, no one — not even the president, is above the law or immune to public criticism.”

That’s a heartening sign, but it’s clearly a minority view. Already, the forces that drove the American insurrection are gathering themselves for a second putsch—er, push.

So even if there is a transformation in the way we approach development and democracy building, I doubt that will happen quickly. And even if it happens soon, it’s likely to be focused much closer to home.

I fear the result of this will not be an embrace of global values, but a collapse into inward-focused nation-building.

On the one hand, that could buy Pacific nations some intellectual space to define themselves and their own particular values.

On the other hand, it could provide cover for any number of selfish acts committed under the banner of nationalism.