Hold My Popcorn: Diplomatic War in the Pacific Theatre

Graeme Smith  00:11

Welcome to the Little Red Podcast which brings you China from beyond the Beijing beltway. I’m Graeme Smith from the Australian National University’s Department of Pacific Affairs, and I’m joined by my co-host, Louisa Lim, former China correspondent for the BBC and NPR, now with the Centre for Advancing Journalism at Melbourne University. We’re on air thanks to support from the Australian Centre on China in the World. And a quick note, one of our guests, Dorothy Wickham disappears about halfway through this episode. That’s not because she was offended. It’s just down to the dodgy internet in the Solomon Islands, so don’t be perturbed.

Louisa Lim  00:50

Across the Solomon Islands, Huawei mobile phone towers are sprouting like shoots after spring rain. There’s new sports facilities, including a 10,000 seat stadium. There’s a huge gold mine and a controversial security pact. These are the gifts that Beijing has rained down on the Pacific country since it switched allegiances from Taiwan to China five years ago. The Solomons’ Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare appears to be delighted, declaring on the campaign trail for next month’s elections that China could be the answer to not all but most of the country’s challenges. Other MPs are less impressed, with one opposition MP pushing to scrap the security deal and switch back to Taiwan.

Graeme Smith  01:32

Today we’re hearing the inside story of China’s Pacific play. How has the switch gone? And how and why are some Pacific countries resisting Beijing’s largesse? To hear that point of view we’ll talk to Jessica Marinaccio, a former staffer in the Tuvalu embassy in Taiwan, now an assistant professor of Asia Pacific Studies at California State University. But we’re starting in the Solomons with journalist Dorothy Wickham, the co-founder of the Melanesian News Network. Dorothy, after the Solomons changed allegiance to China, you wrote an op-ed for the New York Times called Can you blame poor countries like mine for turning to China? Once the switch happened, how quickly did the money begin to flow into the Solomon Islands?

Dorothy Wickham  02:12

Oh, straight away. Actually, it was already starting to trickle in even before the switch. You can tell there were a lot of movements. A lot of our members of parliament and prominent people were travelling to Beijing. I had actually found out six months before because I accidentally found out there was a delegation of people travelling to Beijing, even before the switch was made public and I was wondering why they were going there. But I didn’t really think that it was a diplomatic issue. I thought it was more trade and business at the time. So, I must be losing my touch! Anyway, that’s what happened. And we switched. Oh, my goodness. Anyway, I think, as you know, Solomon Islands has been through a lot of a lot of issues. We’ve been through, you know, ethnic crisis, we’ve had riots. And the impact on that is that it’s slowed our economy or pulled it back. We’ve gone back nearly 10, 20 years backwards, in terms of our business sector, and just our infrastructure development. And so that’s why I think that some of these politicians who are in power now are frustrated by the slowness and the fact that they can’t, they can’t push it as fast as they can because of the lack of funds. And I think Solomon Islanders, ordinary Solomon Islanders, also have that sense of urgency, wanting to get things going and moving. And I think the internet has given this you say, this sense of us falling way behind. Because they can see what’s happening around the region, and even the world, now through the internet. Before most Solomon Islanders are oblivious to this, that we didn’t have the good roads, the good buildings that maybe Fiji or Papua New Guinea or Vanuatu had. Solomon Islanders realised that we have really fallen behind. Hence the frustration and anger, you know, leaning towards now accepting China’s presence here. Because they see the infrastructure and the fast-paced movement of the business sector since China’s entered the market here. And I always say to some, to people who are critical of us, I’m saying you have to realise this is our economic reality. People are making their choices and basing their perspectives on the economic reality. We can’t tell them not to accept something. When they see this, whatever it is, as their way out of the situation they’re in.

Louisa Lim  04:46

Jess, I wanted to ask you, I mean, that economic reality is definitely part of the equation when it comes to Tuvalu, right? China offered to build a whole new artificial island, $400 million worth of artificial islands. And yet Tuvalu chose to stay with Taiwan whose offerings were much more humble, you know, piggeries, agricultural projects, things like that. Why did [Tuvalu] not switch?

Jessica Marinaccio  05:16

Well, I think just in looking at it, especially after the recent election, when almost immediately, like after thousands of people, of reporters are asking, is Tuvalu going to switch, what’s going to happen? You know, phone calls every single day. And then you see that the new prime minister almost immediately, they released that they’re going to stay with Taiwan. And I think just from some of my observations, if you look at what happens, like I understand, definitely, from the economic perspective, why countries would switch. But if you look at from the journalistic perspective, when countries switch in the Pacific, often they are really dragged through the mud, from an international media perspective. And I think that Tuvalu kind of, some of those ideas, it knows very well. Like it knows it’ll be portrayed in a way, as money hungry, or there’ll be these very negative ways in which the country is portrayed. And Tuvalu, I worked on the foreign policy for Tuvalu, and they specifically put in all these Tuvaluan values, and the importance of culture, of thinking about being a good neighbour, of being loyal. And so, these really play into the necessity of staying with Taiwan. So, I think from a reputational standpoint, and also from this idea of kind of looking at Tuvaluan values. There is a lot in there that suggests that Tuvalu should stay with Taiwan, even if it might not be the most economically beneficial thing to do. And especially just seeing that Tuvalu has witnessed Nauru switching, Kiribati switching, Solomon Islands switching. And even in Taiwan, you see how those students, right, the scholarship students from Solomons, from Kiribati, they’re basically like kicked out, you know, when the ties will end. And there’s terrible things written about some of these students in Taiwan. And just not, I think now they’re starting to stop Nauru. They’re allowing those students to stay. But before one of the things that would happen, kind of the consequences was you lose everything that you’re getting from Taiwan. And so that would affect individual people. And you just see how negatively some of these countries would be written about in Taiwan and other parts of the world. And I think that Tuvalu has seen that right through some of its diplomatic action. And so, there’s some of that thought process also goes into thinking about switching or not.

Graeme Smith  07:15

And this is maybe a question for both of you, because before a country switches, there is no Chinese Embassy there. And in the case of Tuvalu, there’s only two embassies there anyway. Australia and, and Taiwan. I mean, how is the switch engineered? Like who’s there on the ground representing China and trying to make things happen? And how do they, you know, make these offers of like, in the case of Tuvalu, $400 million worth of islands? Or in the case of Solomons’ half a billion dollars’ worth of aid? I mean, how do these offers get made? Who’s doing this?


Jessica Marinaccio  07:46

I’m not really sure exactly how the offers are made. I know, I’ve heard people talking about being approached at the UN, right? There are diplomats for Tuvalu that are abroad, being approached in Fiji. I think that people are on record kind of saying that that’s where they are approached at these international meetings. But one of the things that’s really interesting to me, and I was talking about this recently at a conference, is that if you look at how kind of international aid structures work in the Pacific. There are a lot of methods through which China kind of gets pulled into countries that are not its diplomatic allies. So, one example is that, if you look at the ADB, the Asian Development Bank, the way that they do a lot of their tendering for their big projects in the Pacific is a cost-based, not cost-quality tendering, but cost-based tendering. And as soon as you say that you know that the country that will win most of these tenders is going to be China, and companies from China. So, until recently, when Australia kind of stopped this from happening, there was a Chinese company CCECC that was in Tuvalu completing various boat harbours in this massive project that ADB was funding because they had the lowest bid. And that is really interesting to me that, you know, there’s so much about the China threat. And yet international structures, or these regional organisations are the ones that are kind of pulling China into countries and giving them the access that they might not have, if they weren’t able to come up with these really low-cost bids. And so also very interesting that recently, that company CCECC, which switched out for an Australian company, that also something very interesting that happened recently. So, I think that maybe people started taking notice of some of the issues that that might generate, if you’re thinking from an international relations standpoint. So, I think that’s very interesting how you see China’s still in these countries where you’re expecting that they’re not going to be.

Graeme Smith  09:32

And, Dorothy, I mean, how was CCECC involved in the switch in Solomons as well?

Dorothy Wickham  09:38

In our case, I think it would be the same. But we already had, you know, the Solomon Islands has a big Chinese business sector. So, there were already some players in the country who were working, I think, on certain government members of parliament to facilitate the switch. And then when it happened, you sort of saw who they were when the delegations started to travel to China, because they were the ones who are accompanying them to China on these trips.

Louisa Lim  10:06

Dorothy, I remember you wrote this great piece for The Guardian about how you went on a look and learn media tour to China. And that was just after the switch. And in the piece, you warned that the Solomon political leaders might not be able to deal with China, that the Solomons would be too fragile and weak. I mean, how has China changed the culture, the political culture of the Solomon Islands in the last five years?

Dorothy Wickham  10:32

Well, I think, I don’t think we’re changed, I think things are moving at a faster pace than ordinary Solomon Islanders need to understand. I think this is where, where we need to ensure that Solomon Islanders, ordinary Solomon Islanders understand, the issues of development, economics, and all these other issues that they’ll have to face. Because, here in this country, indigenous people own more than 80 percent of the land. So, if you wanted to go into a mining deal, a fishing deal, a logging deal, or any business outside of a town boundary, then you’re dealing with indigenous landowners. Now, whether our indigenous landowners understand enough to be protected, that is the issue. I don’t think it’s fair to say that we are the only country doing business with China, Australia does too. Australia buys a lot of its exports, a lot of its citrus to China. It has one of the biggest Chinese ports in Darwin. You know, New Zealand was the first country in the Oceania to sign, to become a diplomatic partner to China. I think the thing that we need to focus on here is, are we ready to handle these people? Are our people ready? And I’ve always said, and I also will keep repeating, that our government needs to focus on education. We need to educate our people so that they’re strong enough, intellectually capable enough to determine their destiny, whatever it is, or whoever the diplomatic partner is, in terms of how we handle our relationships. I’m going to be blunt here. If you look at it, is it not the way Australia played on Bougainville, with the Bougainville issue? Of course, the Australian government backed an Australian mining company, against the indigenous people. And then you also see the mainland of PNG with the mining operations there. So, this is what I’m, what I’m kept saying, this is economic reality we talking about, yeah, yeah. Australia’s gonna make its decisions based on its economic reality. That’s why the Pacific is not happy with Australia in terms of climate change issues and negotiations. Because Australia is not going to just suddenly stop just because the Pacific wants it to, because it has to also look at its economic reality. And the Pacific itself. Whether it’s Solomon, it’s Fiji, it’s PNG, Vanuatu, Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu, wherever it is. We all have to deal with our economic reality. But the thing is, and the question is, are our people ready enough, understand enough to handle these relationships? That’s where me, as a Solomon Islander, and as a journalist, I’m concerned about that my people are not ready. If, if ordinary Solomon Islanders are not ready, I don’t think our politicians are ready, either.

Graeme Smith  13:17

So, Dorothy, can I ask you a follow-up question? Because one thing we hear a lot in Australia is there’s there’s sort of this almost cartoonish thing that somehow the Solomons went bad when China arrived. And that, you know, China captured all the elites, and that things just kind of changed overnight. But I mean, can you maybe talk us through how does elite capture actually work in the Solomon Islands? How does an MP become beholden, if you like, to business interests?

Dorothy Wickham  13:43

I think when they say elite capture, I think they’re talking politicians. But if we’re talking elite, educated, elite, business-wise, there’s no capture. These people are living their lives and doing it according to what they want to do. They’ve got the education to do it, and they got the money to do it, to choose their destiny. While the politicians are swaying that way, because they need the Chinese money to ensure that development gets into their areas and also into their pockets.

Graeme Smith  14:08

And I mean how does the money get into their pockets, if you like? Because it seems to be quite a complicated process in the Solomon Islands and something that in a way other donors can’t really do?

Dorothy Wickham  14:20

Well, let’s just say if you give aid to a country, and it’s managed by the government, it depends on how the government distributes the funds. So, over the last 20 years, I’ve seen Australia really tighten up the screw on the way its funds are managed inside the ministry. So, they actually put Australian consultants into the ministries to ensure that the funding that they give actually goes where they want it to go. And New Zealand and you see other countries do it. But this is not happening with Chinese aid, it goes into the government system, and the government decides what it does with it. And so that’s when it can get you know, people misusing it.

Louisa Lim  14:59

And, I mean, Jess, what is the situation like in Tuvalu? Is the pressure from below that people are seeing this money flowing into other Pacific countries and saying, well, what about us? We, you know, we would like to have schools and sports facilities and things like that.

Jessica Marinaccio  15:16

Yeah, so I mean, my feeling, especially from what happened with the election. So, if we see how the election kind of panned out, and how the government was formed. I think, at least at the government level, the representatives from most of the islands are not so much feeling the pressure that they need to switch to any, to another country, or they need to try to get more funding specifically from China. Because the way that this government formed out, there are so many people who are in the government and very few in the opposition. And one of the people who ended up in the opposition Seve Paeniu, the Minister of Finance, was the person who openly called before the election for there to be a review of whether Tuvalu would stay with Taiwan or go with China. And the fact that he got isolated, when he was the Minister of Finance, he got isolated outside of the government. Many of the people who are in the government now were in the government, when he was Minister of Finance. I think that says a lot about how people on the ground and people who are voting for these different politicians probably feel and the politicians themselves. That, you know, that way of calling very openly for this review of the relationship was not, people didn’t really think that this was a good move on his part. Or they didn’t think that this was something they really wanted to be airing out in front of other countries that they were possibly thinking about switching to Taiwan. And so just from the election itself, I think, and from thinking about what people might be asking politicians, for definitely health, education, all of these issues are really forefront in people’s mind. But I think also there, because of the way Tuvalu is kind of mapped out geographically, I don’t think people are thinking so much about money coming in for new hospitals or money coming in necessarily for new schools, as much as finding pathways where people can gain education outside of the country. Or they can sustainably gain health care outside of the country. I’m just seeing how most people when they do have very serious medical conditions have to, have to leave Tuvalu for care. And so, I think in some of that, there may be, there may be some fear of switching to China, because people may not necessarily trust the medical facilities there. Whereas maybe Taiwan is seen as a more secure partner to send people to, and of course, Australia and New Zealand. So, these are the countries that I think Tuvalu really wants to foster that stronger relationship with to make it easier to refer people out of the country. Because I’ve seen what happens when people get stuck in Tuvalu. We saw this during COVID, when everything was locked down. It’s really, really dire when people are not able to leave. And so, I think really building up those partnerships means that Tuvalu might be looking more at strong partnerships with Australia and New Zealand, rather than maybe these partnerships with China that would lend more money coming into the country.

Graeme Smith  17:53

Isn’t that interesting? I mean, one thing that no one talks about much is that Taiwan has these other ways this sort of soft ways of trying to persuade Pacific countries that they should stay on board and you’ve written about this thing called Austronesian diplomacy. Can you maybe explain to our listeners what that, what that is and how Taiwan uses it?

Jessica Marinaccio  18:12

Sure. So Austronesian diplomacy, the Austronesian language group is this language group that covers most of the Pacific. It goes from Taiwan, that’s where some people think the language group may have come from. It covers Rapanui, all the way to the east. It goes to Madagascar, all the way to the west. It covers most of islands, Southeast Asia, and most of the Pacific. So, the idea here is that indigenous peoples in all of these places speak similar languages. So, you know, when people are counting five in Tuvalu, is lima. And it’s the same in, for indigenous groups within Taiwan. So, Taiwan has this thing, the indigenous peoples who right, did not originally migrate into Taiwan, when the KMT migrated over. They were there for a really long time before that. And that is something that differentiates Taiwan from an identity perspective from China. And it also ties Taiwan into the Pacific. So, there’s been a lot of things that have been done, especially under DPP governments, the more independence-focused governments in Taiwan, to try to really propagate or to publicise that idea that there are similarities between Taiwan as an ocean country, as a Pacific country, with indigenous people who are similar to people in the Pacific. But sometimes it really does get a little bit overplayed, where you’ll have presidents who are Han Chinese, going into Pacific countries and saying, “Oh, we’re all ocean peoples and our Austronesian culture,” which I’m not really a part of, but still, I’m going to claim that as part of how we’re going to make this relationship. And so that’s something that Taiwan has been using, and people started to call it Austronesian diplomacy. So, you saw Chen Shui-bian 陳水扁, who was president in the 2000s. He did this amazingly, like he was so hyperbolic and just going and telling all these countries how similar they were and wearing sulu in Fiji and doing all of these things. Tsai Ing-wen 蔡英文, the most recent president before Lai Ching-te 賴清德, she actually was, she is part indigenous. So, she kind of had more cachet when she was going out there. But it’s really, it’s really interesting to look at these diplomatic forums because sometimes they don’t quite work out in the Pacific as people planned. Because a lot of Pacific nations that have alliances with Taiwan are not settler colonies, they don’t have majority who are non-indigenous and a minority who are indigenous. So, some of these ideas of kind of indigenous ties or connections or resistance don’t really make so much sense from the perspective of some of the Pacific countries that Taiwan uses this diplomatic forum on.


Louisa Lim  20:35

It seems that it’s really not been that successful, this Austronesian diplomacy. I mean, Taiwan has been losing its Pacific allies fast, with Nauru switching this year. And now only three Pacific countries, and all of them so tiny, right? Palau, the Marshalls and Tuvalu. They’re the only ones left that recognise Taiwan. Do you think Taiwan just can’t compete with that kind of steamroller Chinese aid and economic development?

Jessica Marinaccio  21:03

Well, I think from the perspective of official relations, that’s the case. But if you think about Austronesian diplomacy, or any of Taiwan’s diplomacy in the Pacific from the unofficial perspective, it’s doing such a good job. Like Austronesian diplomacy, it’s not super attractive for countries like Tuvalu, but to countries like New Zealand and to states like Hawaii. Those places that have similar structures to Taiwan, where they have a minority indigenous people, and majority who are Europeans, or came in from another country, colonisers, it works really well. There were like very strong ties between Guam and Taiwan, Taiwan and New Zealand, Taiwan and Hawaii. And I think in some ways, these are Taiwan’s real targets, right? The places that are linked up into the United States, the places that are places like New Zealand that have a lot more diplomatic power, maybe than some of the other Pacific countries. Because if you think over the past 30, 40 years, Taiwan has done so much work to build up unofficial recognition. It’s basically recognised by the US without having that official consent, but they do have, you know, security agreements and other things. And recently, you can see there are more and more delegations from countries like Lithuania and parts of Eastern Europe that come into Taiwan, and basically say that, “Oh, we support Taiwan. We’re with China, but we support Taiwan.” So, the unofficial game that Taiwan has been playing, I think really outweighs the losses that it has had from those official allies. And any of the missteps that they have with things like indigenous diplomacy, from the official allies, is more than made up for from what they’re gaining unofficially, but just people don’t really focus on that as much. But I think just from an unofficial perspective, you can see how more and more countries think of Taiwan as their partner, even if they don’t officially sign any agreements to that effect.

Graeme Smith  22:48

And Jess, you spent a lot of time with with Taiwanese foreign affairs officials. And one thing we uncovered during the Nauru switch was that when Nauru was switched, China kind of hoped for this warm thing from the netizens saying, hooray, we’ve got another ally back from Taiwan. But instead, most Chinese netizens were making fun of Nauru and calling it a weird country and an empire of poop digging. And, you know, they kind of looked at it, like this is the third smallest country in the world. How can we get excited about the third smallest country in the world? I mean, how does Taiwanese foreign affairs, how did they see their allies, like, and how does the Taiwanese public view these these remaining allies?

Jessica Marinaccio  23:26

So that is what’s really interesting, because when you look and I won’t say it’s all, of course, of the Taiwanese population. But when you look at, because I did something that was such a, almost just took up all my time. But I just look for any instance, in newspapers with the word Tuvalu showed up, or Pacific allies and man, you find some really horrible things that are written about Taiwan’s Pacific allies: they’re a waste of money. There are a lot of articles that even look at them as if they’re kind of like a jilted lovers scenario. That, “Oh, we give these allies so much of our time and our money. And then what did they do? They just dumped us when they find somebody better.” And of course, that’s going to happen. Why does the government waste money on them? There’s racialized things, you know, people referring to skin colour, people referring to size all the time, how small these countries are, what’s the point? What are they going to do for us? Even if they speak for us at the UN, what does that matter? Because what power do they have at the UN? Oh, again and again. And so that, I’m not surprised at all that people are not excited that Nauru was brought back. I think that this fight is such a fight that’s at the diplomatic level, where it seems so important to the government. And then people on the ground are like, well, what is what is this matter? Right, I think it made it made a lot more sense in the 70s and the 80s when the countries that were being dropped, were like the United States, and people saw what an impact it had. But now because Taiwan is down to so few allies. And I think a lot of the Taiwanese population for a long time has already thought that this like what is the point of this? Especially as Taiwan has done well with the unofficial diplomacy. And I think that that’s really hard for the Pacific countries because they just get so stereotyped. There’s attention on them in Taiwan that they wouldn’t get in other countries because they are those small countries, quote, unquote. But then people know them because they are allies. And then they get ideas about them, because they’re allies, like, oh, if it’s our ally, they must be small. If it’s our ally, they must be poor. I hear that again, and again. Man, I kind of wish they weren’t an ally, because then you wouldn’t know anything about them. And you know, it’d be clean slate for understanding the country. So, a lot of Pacific nations have to do a lot of work within Taiwan to show the culture. And to show that there’s a lot going on there, size is not as important as seeing how rich the history and culture of places has been. But yeah, really understand that from a Chinese perspective, right, from the population’s perspective, getting Nauru back, people would just think that this is, it’s meaningless, right. And often people will see the amount of money that’s spent and they’ll think, well, why did we do that? Right? It’s just very tokenistic and symbolic. So, I think it has a pretty negative impact on these specific countries and how they’re seen within both Taiwan and now obviously, China as well.

Louisa Lim  26:03

I was really interested in the fact that you raised the importance of the international image of Tuvalu and said that was one of the reasons why Tuvalu didn’t switch. I mean, look at Nauru, has actually switched, I think four times. Recognising Taiwan until 2002, then China for three years, then Taiwan for almost 20 years, and then back to China. I think there is this tendency to paint that as kind of being very fickle and money driven. But from the point of view of Pacific countries, is that just realpolitik? How do they see the fact that they’re being painted, you know, when I guess their bargaining chip is very small, and they’re using it, but as well as they can? And yet they get painted in such ways? How does that go down in the Pacific?

Jessica Marinaccio  26:55

Well, I think that it has a real impact. I mean, clearly, people will still make the decisions that they want to make in different governments like Nauru switched so many times. And if you go back and look at the articles that were written, when Nauru switched each time. It’s like the mouse that roared, and you know, all of these things that are very, that might be about Russia, because they’ve also had other diplomatic switches. But you know, just some of the things that are written are so belittling of these countries. So, when you look back at them, I think, to this point, today, there is a real impact in people seeing how countries are portrayed. And especially, it depends what kind of diplomatic game you’re trying to play. So, the current prime minister of Tuvalu, he was the former Deputy Secretary General for the Pacific Islands Forum, for PIF. He also was the head of the western and central Pacific Fisheries Commission. So, I think that he has a really good idea of kind of what the feeling is regionally and internationally and how different countries are viewed when they take certain actions. And definitely, he was very tight-lipped about whether he was, what his views on Taiwan was. I know, somebody told me they tried to call him like 20 times, and just didn’t pick up and they thought, oh, well, what’s wrong with this guy? I’m like, well, he, he knows, right? He’s not even in the prime minister seat yet. So, he’s not going to talk to you until he’s confirmed. And then he’ll get to, you know, say what’s on his mind. But, so I think from that perspective, there’s probably a lot of thought going into reputationally how Tuvalu is looking as this new government is coming into play, especially because they’re really focused on climate change and funding. And if you stay with Taiwan, although Taiwan itself can’t offer a lot. Its partners like the US and Australia certainly can, right? So, there is something to say for the leveraging of thinking, okay, if I stay with Taiwan, and there is some threat that people are seeing that maybe we might go with China. Australia and the US may come in with offers to kind of bolster whatever Taiwan is doing. Because the US and Australia very much do want, you know, Tuvalu to stay with Taiwan. If we go with China, we’ll get more money from China. But will that really help us? Will it be more than what the US and Australia possibly could offer? So, I think there’s a lot of different calculations that are going on. But some of them I think, certainly, we’ve just seen so many, so much accumulation of this bad press for countries when they switch to China. And definitely Kiribati, Solomon Islands and Nauru. Nauru was so fresh, I think as well, just looking at how it got written about more recently. That I think, that definitely has an impact on how people think about whether you can use that leverage. If you want to use that leverage, I think the idea is you have to be really sure. Right? We really want to use it now. Do you? Maybe just maybe hold it off till another day, take that hit only once. Don’t take it multiple times as you switch back and forth.

Louisa Lim  29:35

I mean, how much longer do you think those three countries Palau, the Marshalls and Tuvalu, how much longer do you think they will hold out against the sort of Chinese enticements?

Jessica Marinaccio  29:46

Well, I think Palau and the Marshalls, they may, I think they’ll stay pretty long because some of the issue there, are some of the reason there that they’re able to stay with Taiwan, without a lot of threat or a lot of a lot of guessing about whether they’re going to go or not, is because both of them are former colonies of the US, they are Compact of Free Association countries. And so, I think that there is a lot that is going on between them in the United States that is kind of making them stay with Taiwan or feel that that’s a secure position. For Tuvalu, I mean, I really think just seeing that, this instance, with this Prime Minister, that they so quickly said that they were staying with Taiwan when they probably could have dangled it out for a few months. And maybe really scared everybody, into getting the US and Australia to giving them more money. The fact that they just immediately are like, no, we’re not switching. I think it would really take a major shift in the government. So probably not for the next four years. Definitely. And it would really be if there was like the, this whole government team now, many of whom did win re-election. A lot of them to lose re-election, I think to kind of see people potentially shift. So, I think for these three, of course, this is always a very, very dangerous question to try to answer in the affirmative or the negative, because you ultimately end up looking like an idiot when someone finds the clip. But I think for these three, it seems, it seems to me, of course, tomorrow, I’ll hear news, and then I’ll be embarrassed. But it seems to me that they seem pretty firm. And I, yeah, I think it would just for Tuvalu, it’d definitely take a change in government. I think Palau and the Marshall Islands, it’s more about the, the Compact of Free Association itself, and kind of what the United States is guaranteeing as part of these wider ideas of staying in this relationship with Taiwan.

Louisa Lim  30:21

So, when you look at the Pacific from the outside, we’re seeing that kind of net of Chinese influence is really increasing. Do you think that that will sort of reshape the way the power politics within the Pacific plays out? How will that impact Tuvalu?

Jessica Marinaccio  31:49

I think, well, because we did see that there was that attempt by China to sign a security agreement or sign an agreement with all of its allies, that then the Federated States of Micronesia kind of put the kibosh on that by sending the information to everybody. If that sort of agreement were signed, if there was something that was joint between China and all of its allies, I think that’s when you start to see pressure on the countries that are not allied with China. Because in most cases, I would say that probably if things grew organically, countries like Tuvalu would just start interacting with China, despite having ties with Taiwan, because we kind of see that in other parts of the world as well. Most countries have some relationship with both at some level. But I think within the Pacific, China really does not have any motivation to compromise, right? So, if they do get an agreement like that with all of the other countries, then it would really, they’d have some pressure to start putting on Tuvalu saying, well, or Marshalls and Palau. That, you know, you’re not with these countries, you’re not with us. And so, you can’t be part of these bigger agreements that are going on. And so, in some ways that could form an architecture that leaves out the Taiwan allies. And that I think, would put a lot of pressure because regionalism, right, is so important. That if these countries started to get left out, even though you still have the Pacific Islands Forum, it would just be like this entire other structure that you weren’t benefiting from. Because there are other ones, like Japan has something like this, that they do, the PALM meetings that they have, where you have all the Pacific countries plus Japan. And so, this would be something where it’s like all the Chinese allies plus China, and you’re leaving out some of the countries, and only three of them. So, I could see there would be a lot of pressure if something like that was to take hold. And I think it’s only because a lot of countries, despite having relations with China still view it with such suspicion, that they haven’t been able to get that kind of written agreement set yet. But if they do, and when they do, I think that’s when you might start to see some shifts as well. Because that would really I think, be the pressure that might be needed to change how some countries are operating because they would be left out of decision-making by the rest of the group, vis-a-vis China.

Louisa Lim  32:03

I noticed that you said “yet”. They haven’t done it, yet?

Jessica Marinaccio  33:56

Yeah, I mean, I think if just from what I’ve seen, if China’s really, they’re intent on something, probably there’s going to be a way to get it done. It just, because there’s so many leaders involved. And I do know that, you know, you see there are certain leaders that like yeah, we know we’re with China, but they still have misgivings about it. And so last time, it only takes one country to start leaking information and sending documents around in letters that they’re not approving of this to ruin the whole thing. So, I feel like that could probably still happen a couple more times before most people are on board with an agreement like this, because it is quite wide-reaching. And people do still hear all the rumours about what might be going on in other countries. They’re selling their ports; they’re selling their islands. And I think that makes leaders quite wary about signing agreements without having a lot of verification and checking that’s going on.

Graeme Smith  34:46

And when you talk to your friends in the Taiwanese foreign service, is there any thought about what happens when there’s no allies left? You know, what happens then?

Jessica Marinaccio  34:56

But I think this is like the brilliant thing about the unofficial diplomacy. Because, and what a lot of people do write sometimes in these Taiwanese newspapers, is do they need official allies? I mean, does it really matter if you have the US saying they’re going to support you? If you have all these countries that have relations with China, but still are visiting you to anger China. Nancy Pelosi is coming and visiting your country and risking a war. Does it really matter in the end, and I think a lot of people think that maybe it doesn’t. Maybe you could go down to zero, but you still have enough support behind you from people who are legitimately scared of China, and would go to bat for you, we hope. That is those, although that recognition from the perspective of maybe just having statehood or being independent, that’s important. But when you go down to zero, and the 12 allies that you have now don’t really have this very strong international voice that maybe that doesn’t, it wouldn’t be a huge game changer for the status of Taiwan right now. And people have been kind of writing about this since they had 20 allies. So, I think we’re now, we’re down to 12. It’s just kind of people waiting to see who’s going to be last and really if it’s going to have an impact. But I don’t know if it will have a major impact.

Graeme Smith  36:10

Thank you, Jess. You’ve been listening to the Little Red Podcast, bringing you China from beyond the Beijing beltway. Many thanks to our guests, Jessica Marinaccio and Dorothy Wickham, and to my co-host Louisa Lim. Editing is by Andy Hazel. Background research by Wing Kuang, our social media and transcripts are by Juliette Baxter. Our theme tune is by Suzy Wilkins and our cartoons and gifs are courtesy of Seb Danta. Bye for now.