Poneke has posted a very good article about the growing Chinese influence in the Cook Islands.
China is obviously competing with Taiwan for influence in the region. To most New Zealanders this is just diplomatic game-playing.
To Taiwan however it is a matter of national survival.
For new Zealand also it should be a matter of major concern.
I scarcely saw any Chinese people during my recent stay but the growing Chinese influence in the Cook Islands was the subject of considerable debate. As well as the court house and police station, China has offered to fund a new stadium and a major sports event in 2009. Many people were asking why China would bestow such munificence on such a tiny South Pacific island nation so distant from China.
But I am surprised there has been no coverage whatsoever here of the farewell speech given in Rarotonga a few days ago by the departing New Zealand high commissioner John Bryan, which received considerable publicity in the Cooks because of his candid thoughts on the China connection…
As the daily newspaper, the Cook Islands News, put it, career diplomats seldom express their views on important issues in public, so Bryan’s comments were all the more remarkable and worthy of reporting by the New Zealand media.
“People are saying there is no such thing as a free lunch so what do the Chinese want in return for the assistance they are providing?” Bryan said. “There are lots of ideas floating around, including them wanting access to Cook Islands fishing grounds, the establishment of a fishing fleet in the northern group and the facilitation of migrants. May be there is an ounce of truth in that.”
But what John Bryan believes to be China’s main interest is the Taiwan issue. There is great rivalry between China and Taiwan, the province that broke away after Mao’s communists took over the mainland in 1949 and which was recognised by most Western countries as the “official” China until the early 1970s.
Some countries still recognise Taiwan rather than China, including Nauru, Palau, Tuvalu and the Solomon Islands in the Pacific. Almost unnoticed by the New Zealand media, China and Taiwan have been quietly competing for influence in the region, in much the same way, though not as nakedly, as Japan has been trying to buy the votes of Pacific nations at the International Whaling Commission. This makes it all the more disappointing that the New Zealand media missed John Bryan’s speech.
Let me report what he said: “I think it comes down to the bitter rivalry that exists between China and Taiwan in securing diplomatic recognition across the Pacific. China advocates, and most members of the United Nations agree, that Taiwan is still a legitimate province of the mainland. Taiwan likes to think they are ‘autonomous’ and can operate accordingly. Several Pacific nations agree with them and they all have formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan.
China would, of course, prefer these countries to respect the one China policy and they continue to try and persuade them to change allegiance. Some argue that this situation is the cause of what is commonly referred to as ‘chequebook diplomacy’ in the Pacific, where the one with the highest financial offering tends to win the battle for diplomatic recognition.
Naturally China is concerned that the Pacific island countries that currently support China, including the Cook Islands, might also be courted by Taiwan and be persuaded to change diplomatic recognition. That is why I think they are enhancing their relationship with the Cook Islands and offering tangible assistance. Also, China sees the Cook Islands as having a very good reputation in the region and that they might have the ability to influence those Pacific countries who currently acknowledge Taiwan to change their diplomatic position towards China.”