Moves by communist authorities in mainland China to strictly enforce rules prohibiting tour groups from holidaying in Palau have understandably caused a lot of head-scratching here in Koror. It is easy to conclude that the pressure coming from Beijing is all just a strong-armed gambit designed to force Palau to open up diplomatic relations with XI Jinping’s state, rather than maintaining strong ties with the Taiwan-based Republic of China, as we do now. But simple assumptions aren’t always helpful for understanding the behaviour of one of the world’s most complex autocracies.
To grasp how Beijing’s leaders make their decisions, you have to understand that they face a fundamentally different, even unique set of expectations, systemic constraints, and institutional circumstances. Most governments in the world, even dictatorial ones such as the regimes of Berdimuhamedov in Turkmenistan or El-Sisi in Egypt, regularly hold presidential and parliamentary elections. Naturally, many of those polls are sham elections, where the winner is known long before the first vote is cast, where voting is neither free nor fair. No doubt, such simulations of democracy are designed to coerce populations to show active approval for the ruling elite at the ballot box, rather than allowing them to just submit to repressive political circumstances passively in their everyday lives. But the fact these top-level elections are held still matters. Leaders structure their political programs, their propaganda and political repression machinery around short term time frames as they seek to revalidate their legitimacy in elections real or simulated. Russian dictator Vladimir Putin`s invasion of the Ukrainian island of Crimea in 2014 was, for example, widely described by analysts as an attempt to shore up falling domestic approval rating by appealing to nationalistic sentiment. Meanwhile leaders in Communist China, where even highly manipulated direct elections are only used for low-key posts such as a village chief or municipal deputy, are much less constrained by such short-term obligations to demonstratively re-affirm in the face of the populace their purported right to rule.
This doesn’t, however, mean, that communist rulers in Beijing think there are no challenges to their rule, nor that it isn’t in need of legitimation in general. Instead, they have merely sought it else – in the economy. Ancient Chinese Emperors were guided by Tian Ming, the Mandate of Heaven, a concept which prescribed that the great power conferred upon a feudal ruler is justified by that ruler’s obligation to use that power in a considered, morally just way that serves the benefit of his people. The new Red emperors in Beijing have corrupted this ancient notion into the ‘Mandate of the Dollar, Skyscraper, and Smartphone’. Underpinning their ruthless rule, is a very simple idea: China`s seemingly miraculous transformation from a nation impoverished by Mao`s brutal, failed cultural revolution in the 1960s to a globally respected economic superpower in the 20th century, grants its post-Mao reformist leaders the right to rule, unchecked by such niceties as the rule of law, elections or independent courts. Beijing’s communist party kleptocrats clearly believe that their reign will not mass face serious mass challenge on the streets as long as shiny images of new high speed bullet trains, state-of-the-art personal gadgets and vast construction projects allow their propaganda apparatus to sell the citizens of China the illusion of a better, more prosperous future under communist party rule. So long as there is big enough of a kernel of truth to such propaganda, Beijing rulers can after all use their giant firewall to keep out any contrary information suggesting that the so-called economic boom’s riches have largely flowed into the coffers of politically well-connected elites while ordinary people have been left to deal with the pollution, labour exploitation and corruption it is built on. But what happens when – and as far as capitalist economies of boom and bust go, it is a question of when not if – the economy slows down and even the illusion of a boom cannot be maintained credibly any-more? Quo Vadis Communist Party legitimacy, then….
It is in this context that Chinese efforts in the Pacific Islands region are best understood. China`s actions in the Pacific are not motivated by some kind of moral quest, least of all one for diplomatic recognition from tiny Pacific Island states with a cumulative population of less than one row of apartment blocks in Beijing. It does not need Palau`s additional one vote in the UN General Assembly, where it already has an absolute veto-power via the Security Council. What it does need, however, is an insurance policy for economically bleaker days.
Some well-connected Koror insiders suggest that China`s tourism pressure was never meant to cash-starve Palau into recognising the Beijing-based communist state rather than Taiwan-based Republic of China. Instead, it is suggested, that Palau ought to open unofficial back-channels that would formally allow Beijing officials to provide quasi-consular assistance to tourists here; Back-channels that would, it is implied, lead to the local economy and business community developing much closer ties to mainland China.
A look at other Pacific Island countries, such as the Solomon Islands, indeed suggests that recognition of the PRC is not the be all and end all of Communist China’s agenda. Neither does non-recognition seem to be a barrier to investment from companies based in the PRC. In Honiara, where diplomatic ties with the Taiwan-based Republic of China have long been maintained, Australia earlier this summer stepped in to fund a costly new undersea telecommunications cable in a desperate push to prevent PRC-based companies from building it. Meanwhile, South Korea, which has recognised the PRC for over two decades, was hit with an apparent group-tourism ban by communist Chinese authorities amid concerns by Beijing over a new, US-backed missile system.
The PRC’s boom economy has always been backed by raw military prowess, vast international influence and hard-nosed, geostrategic maneuvering. Otherwise, growth based on state-sponsored industrial espionage, rampant copyright infringement and unfair global trade practices would never have been allowed to go unchallenged for so long. In fact, the PRC regime’s power-political methods very much resemble the sheer ruthlessness America, Australia, Britain and the European Union have shown in trying gain economic leverage and global influence.
If China`s economic ‘miracle’ turns out to be an unsustainable fata morgana mirage, economic influence in the strategically-positioned Pacific Islands region may well be leveraged into real economic concessions from other global powers. Concessions that might prove to be a lifeline for embattled leaders in Beijing desperate to keep their facade of political legitimacy from collapsing.
When the rainy day comes for the leaders in Beijing, loan-dependency and investment in critical national infrastructure on some far-flung Pacific Island shore may well prove to be a much better umbrella than any gun-boat; Although there is of course no suggestion the PRC is lacking in any of those either.
Whether Palau should become just another figure in a chess match between global superpowers is something only voters here in Koror can decide. (Colin C. Cortbus)