The Sino-American Chess Game at the Pacific Islands

Starting from Clinton’s Visit to the Cook Islands

During United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to the Asia-Pacific area, her visit to China naturally received the most attention from Chinese-speaking media. But the first stop on her itinerary was actually the most intriguing. It was an island country in the South Pacific where no American official of her rank — nor even any non-American official of her rank — has ever set foot: the Cook Islands. It is here where she took part in the Pacific Islands Forum, in recognition of its importance for the United States.

Pacific Island Countries and Containment Theory

I have already mentioned the background of the Cook Islands and the questions concerning the independence of this island, which signed an agreement of free association with New Zealand. Why would this tiny island country of only 20,000 inhabitants and 240 square kilometers attract a visit from the secretary of state of the greatest country on earth? With a company of aircraft carriers to boot? Why did People’s Daily criticize the visit immediately? Really, what is the importance of a tiny country like this?

The most obvious purpose of Clinton’s visit is to inform the world that even the most remote ends of the earth are still within the United States’ sphere of influence. Despite the fact that China has become the largest trading partner and creditor for a number of Pacific Island countries, strategically these island countries are still under the sphere of influence of Australia and New Zealand who, in turn, are under that of the United States. In the eyes of Beijing, the United States’ attempts to cozy up to these countries aligns with Obama’s proclamation, “Let there be no doubt: in the Asia-Pacific in the 21st century, the United States of America is all in.”

It could be similar to the game in which the United States persuades Japan and the Philippines to oppose China. For the last ten years, Beijing invested a lot of resources in this region, whereas White House aid is a mere blank check never realized. If these island countries act like the Philippines, which asks for China’s money while asking for protection from the United States, obviously this is not something that Beijing would like to see. Moreover, when China entered the Southern Pacific, it did not seize it from the American sphere, whereas Clinton arrived late to the table and took it over. Beijing interpreted this as the destruction of the trust that China and the United States had built up over the past decade.

South-North Pacific and the Sino-American Sphere of Influence

For the past few decades, the United States has overlooked the Southern Pacific, where the Cook Islands are located. Among the Pacific Island countries, America has been focusing solely on the Northern Pacific, which contains the American territory of Guam, Saipan, part of the Marianas Islands — which signed an agreement of free association with the United States — the Marshall Islands — the almost-American colony that has the right to vote in the United Nations — Micronesia, Palau, and so on. This region holds important strategic importance for monitoring competitors in this region. It was a must-conquer place for Japan, and it still fits this description, where China has become the new competitor. If China cozies up to these islands, the United States will be extremely cautious.

The Southern Pacific has for a long time been regarded as a utopia where no big battles have ever taken place. It is not of great importance for the United States, which does not even care to give aid to these countries. However, since Pacific Island countries were once the battlefield of national recognition between China and Taiwan, China has been paying a lot of attention to this region. Since the 1990s, due to America’s negligence and Australia’s inability to intervene, Chinese influence has been expanding in the Southern Pacific.

The Tonga dynasty is one example: Not only did China provide them a huge amount of aid, it also controls the local economic lifeline. It has established a special relationship with the Princess of Tonga, who controls all enterprises in Conga. China even got involved in the internal power struggle of the Tonga royal family — by the way, the King of Tonga died a month ago in Hong Kong). If this trend continues in areas where China builds up power in the South Pacific, and the United States maintains its control in the North, then the American backyard in the Pacific Ocean will be besieged, which is absolutely unacceptable for American conservatives.

Perils and Opportunities of Globalization in Island Countries

Apart from the short-term value of Secretary of State Clinton’s visit to the Cook Islands, there also exists a long-term strategy, which is worth noting: Who can dismiss the potential of these island countries in several decades’ time?

Resource Potential in Pacific Island Countries

Even though the Cook Islands have a land area of only 240 square kilometers, which is barely a quarter of Hong Kong’s total area, its private economic zone is huge, reaching around 180,000 square kilometers, which is three times France’s total land area. The last natural resources extracted on Earth can be found in these isolated areas; as the glaciers in the North Pole melt due to global warming, this region is a hot spot that countries are coveting.

As to the question of whether valuable resources can be extracted from the seabed of the Pacific Ocean, it is unnecessary: As the economist Julian Simon said, history proved that as long as the technology continues to be developed, as long as the human race maintains its creativity, new energy resources will continue to be discovered. The cost of extracting resources considered difficult to obtain in the past will drop.*

From the newly discovered oil fields and newly running sources of energy in the past decade, this observation matches the facts. Even though the Pacific Islands are not rich at present, as long as foreign investment arrives in the country to develop and survey, they will have a great potential to become rich in the blink of an eye. Acquiring the abundant underground resources of the Southern Pacific Islands is marked by China as a strategic goal. Details can be found in “China Geological Survey: Southern Pacific Islands Undersea Mineral Resources,” a report and cooperative environmental analysis, which marks the Cook Islands sea area as multi-metal ores with great prospects.**

Chinese Speakers Change the Demographics of Island Countries

Another group of facts that great countries should consider is, first, these island countries have really small populations: The Cook Islands has only 20,000, another island that also signed the agreement of free association, Niue, has only 1,400. Even the one with whom we are most familiar, the Conga Kingdom, has a total population that does not exceed 10,000. Its population is nowhere near that of the 1.3 billion Chinese population. If even a few Chinese migrate to these islands, without any planning, it will easily create an effect on the demographics of these countries.

In fact, this is already happening: For example, Conga was engaged in diplomatic relations with Taipei, as the King was increasing disgruntled with the democratization of Taiwan and the fact that the princess had become a trading partner with China. Conga thus established a diplomatic relationship with Beijing. Since then, the Chinese population has skyrocketed to almost 4,000 within several years’ time, making up 3 to 4 percent of the total population of Conga and controlling the economic lifeline of the country. And, of course, it evokes anti-Chinese sentiment there.

Sometimes, Chinese populations cannot be quantified with numbers. In Samoa, one-fourth of the total population is of Chinese heritage, but all register in the census as Samoans. Even if China does not make any moves on the country, it is not hard to imagine what would happen as this phenomenon perpetuates itself. For example, Fiji’s political turmoil in recent years is closely related to the fact that many Indians immigrated there during the period of British colonialism. Now Indians make up 40 percent of the Fijian population and have become a forceful political power there. The only difference is that, unlike China, India does not have long-term immigration policies and thus has not touched on global strategic issues yet.

The Insights of the Hawaiian Model for Beijing

Recalling the 19th century, when Hawaii was an independent Pacific Island country with a total population of only 10,000, history textbooks have detailed records of how the United States has occupied and colonized the island. Of course, it is difficult for modern countries to repeat the same steps. China, which emphasizes peaceful advancement, would not like to engulf other countries. But if China’s power continues to grow, given the aforementioned demographics, the colonization of these islands where Chinese population is significant is not entirely refutable.

The United States’ decision to allow some Northern Pacific Islands (e.g., the Marshall Islands) to sign the agreement of free association, encouraging them to strive for recognition in the international community, is a move to make them its protegés. It sends arrested people, whom no countries wish to receive, to prisons there, and some English colonies serve as tax-free havens. If China is looking for similar functions in those countries, it is not enough to agitate the United States.

But if these countries become the information technology hub for China (for example, the main business between the Conga princess and China includes the princess’ satellite communication business) or the military base for China (China considered buying lands in Iceland, which it eventually decided against because of pressure from the West, which suspected that China would use it as a base in the North Pole area), this would suffice to produce structural changes to American national defense planning. Given their mutual goal of preventing the slightest move into the area, we should not be surprised by Sino-American competition over the tiny Cook Islands.

*Editor’s Note: This paraphrased quotation, though accurately translated, could not be independently verified.

**Editor’s Note: This title, though accurately translated, could not be independently verified.

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