Mar 09, 2021 Last Updated 9:51 PM, Mar 7, 2021

China has emerged as one of the key players in the Pacific region and at the changing of the guard of Palau’s leadership in January, new President, Surangel Whipps Jr. was expected to concentrate on the pandemic and its economic fallout. Foreign policy was not expected to be an immediate priority.

But even before President Whipps took his oath of office he took a strong stance on China's growing influence in the region.

 In an interview in January, a week before he has sworn into office, he said he considered the United States and Taiwan as Palau's "real friends."

Whipps, 52, added Palau will continue to recognise the United States as a steadfast partner against China's  "bullying" of smaller nations.

Palau is one of just 15 nations in the world which have diplomatic ties with Taiwan, a number which has dwindled in recent years. 

"It’s important for countries to have shared values  support each and work together. "There is a competition, yes (between US and China) but that's their competition. It's about what we believe," he said.

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Covid-19 has only catalysed the growing geopolitical interest in the Pacific Islands. Donors have been tripping over each other to prepare for an outbreak of the virus. But, at the same time, this has only exacerbated fundamental cleavages in the delivery of aid to the region.

The Pacific has always had a messy web of donor footprints. Australia and New Zealand have been a constant presence. Alongside this, there is a split between the islands that recognise China versus those that recognise Taiwan.

On top of this, colonial relationships and ongoing Compacts of Free Association agreements mean that the support of some big powers looms large in parts of the region, while being entirely absent in others. And more recently, new players such as the European Union have also stepped into the ring.

The fact that the Pacific’s development indicators continue to rank well behind those of Sub-Saharan Africa has helped it avoid the intense politicisation of aid we have seen elsewhere.

But if current trends continue, the Pacific is on track for a collision between its fundamental development needs and the rapidly evolving state of its geopolitical relationships. In just the past few years alone, China has overtaken the United States to become the third-largest donor in the region.

The great risk in all this is that whatever the Pacific needs, it is unlikely to actually receive. Purely donor-driven approaches rarely deliver what a recipient needs, especially when it is geopolitics – not development – driving the agenda.

This new-found interest in the region has also created a myriad of different bilateral aid processes for recipient countries to navigate. As a result, public servants are forced to spend their days writing proposal after proposal, rather than actually getting on with delivering them.

Take Tuvalu, where the support of 58 different donor countries makes up more than half of its gross domestic product, but where there are only eight people responsible for managing this aid.

With the fight against climate change now touching every development project in the Pacific, the greatest setback in the push to harmonise this development aid in recent years has arguably been Australia’s decision to withdraw from the Green Climate Fund (GCF).

The GCF was designed to precisely address this problem by streamlining climate finance. No amount of additional bilateral funding from Australia will make up for this reckless decision.

However, China’s approach is equally problematic – not least its proclivity for bilateral support and large concessional loans, over multilateral channels or even cooperative development projects with other donors. It is hard to underestimate the geopolitical kudos that would probably come Beijing’s way from developing countries if it were to channel some of its own funding through the GCF, for example.

Australia, which remains the largest donor to the region by far, has a particular interest in helping forge a more coordinated approach among the Pacific’s donor community. Analyst Allan Behm’s recent suggestion for Australia to convene a donor conference is a good one.

Australia should realise that its own Pacific “step up” will continue to be hamstrung by its lack of a genuine climate policy, its ability to play this kind of role will remain limited.

Most importantly, such an approach should also be driven by the Pacific itself. The Pacific Islands Forum’s existing “Dialogue Partners” group could provide the basis for this, especially if it can find a way to involve Taiwan.

The 2009 Cairns Compact on Strengthening Development Coordination in the Pacific tried to improve things. And the recent establishment of the “Pacific Humanitarian Pathway” at the height of the Covid-19 crisis could provide a renewed opportunity to get this done.

Covid-19 has confirmed that the new-found geopolitical interest in the Pacific shows no signs of abating. But a better way must be found to coordinate the delivery of aid to the region that comes with this. This crisis is an opportunity to do just that.

Dr Hilda Heine is a former president of the Republic of the Marshall Islands. Thom Woodroofe is senior adviser on multilateral affairs to the president of the Asia Society Policy Institute. This article is published in a content partnership with the Asia Society Policy Institute’s Covid New (Ab) Normal initiative  

Undiplomatic diplomats

Around the kava bowl in Suva, people were discussing some undiplomatic behaviour by Chinese diplomats last month. Then for day or two, reports that Chinese officials had intervened at a Taiwanese National Day ceremony in the Fiji capital, leading to a physical confrontation, dominated local media and featured internationally. There were conflicting reports about which head first attacked which fist, followed by duelling press releases from Beijing and Taipei. Fiji police later issued a statement saying, “the matter is now being handled at the diplomatic level, as agreed to by all parties involved.”

It’s not the first time that disputes between Chinese and Taiwanese officials have played out in the Pacific, but the tone of the debate is getting sharper.

Speaking at a press conference in Beijing in May 2020, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that his country’s diplomats would push back against “deliberate insults.”

“We never pick a fight or bully others, but we have principles and guts,” he stated. “We will push back against any deliberate insult, resolutely defend our national honour and dignity, and we will refute all groundless slander with facts.”

The latest brouhaha in Suva replicates other reported incidents around the region in recent years: a long-running dispute between the Chinese Consul-General and his landlord at the consulate in Tahiti; reports that Chinese officials barged into the PNG Foreign Minister’s office during APEC in 2018; and the seizure of equipment from Chinese journalists by security officers in Australia.

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Kiribati gave Taneti Maamau a resounding victory at the island nation’s presidential poll on 22 June, rewarding him with a second and final four-year term.

As the ruling Tobwaan Kiribati Party (TKP) leader, Maamau polled 26,053 votes, about 59 per cent of total vote cast. His rival Banuera Berina of the Boutokaan Kiribati Moa managed 17,866 votes, winning majority votes in only seven out of the 23 constituencies.

Berina who was chairman of the TKP until he crossed the floor to the opposition late last year was no match it appears to the promises of huge cash bonuses Maamau offered voters.

The opposition gamble of putting up as their candidate someone who had been in the same party as Maamau backfired, although there are others who would argue that the opposition didn’t have much of a choice after its leader Titabu Tabane lost his seat in the parliamentary elections in April.

Read more in the latest Islands Business.

Closed behind their borders amid fears of the Covid-19 virus, electors in Kiribati turned out in two rounds to elect members of the twelfth parliament, the Mwaneaba ni Maungatabu, paving the way for a certain battle between old ‘political bedmates’, caretaker President Taneti Maamau of Tobwaan Kiribati Party (TKP) and the middle-path party Kiribati First Party’s (KFP) leader, lawyer Banuera Berina in the presidential race in June. Former Leader of the Opposition Boutokan te Koaua (BTK) party, lawyer Titabu Tabane, lost his seat from Tab South in the second round of elections. The nation awaits BTK’s nomination for a candidate to contest the presidential race. Maamau and Berina are first round winners on their respective islands, proving their strengths at the polls.

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