I recently returned from China. It was not my first time there. and I anticipate it will not be my last. There was nothing impressive about my being there; I was nothing more than a spectator of village life in Guangdong Province, dim sum breakfasts, banana tress growing in the shadows of high rises. I left via Hong Kong, stocking up on reading material at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum while gazing over the harbor.
In my spectating I noticed one striking thing: all the new maps of China prominently included the nine dash U mark enclosing the bulk of the South China Sea as the territory of the People’s Republic.
Multiple powers have drawn lines over the Pacific for centuries. European powers have done it. Japan did it. The United States has done it. The United Nations has done it. China is currently doing it. To suggest that the Pacific is at a crux between notions of America’s extended back yard and China’s tributaries is hardly an astute observation.
But governance of the oceans in the Pacific raises a fundamental question: what do the people of the Micronesian islands want?
China’s ascendance should come as no surprise. The People’s Republic has amassed wealth, industrial might and diplomatic sophistication. China, and its companies, have built impressive infrastructure throughout the world, and now owns those roadways, sea ports, and airports due to the terms that allowed them to collect in the event of a default. This has happened throughout Africa, Latin America, even Europe and Australia.
China setting sights throughout America’s self-declared backyard should likewise not come as a surprise. If it can build islands, China can build stronger relationships with existing ones. How Micronesians might fare with Chinese investment remains to be seen; the value of undercutting US influence in the region might result in better terms, but Islanders are on notice of what could go wrong.
Islanders can’t be blamed for wanting an alternative to Western-style development. After decades of fees for consultant-driven development, often selected by outsiders, to actually see tangible progress, roads built, electricity generated, money coming in, certainly feels like the dawn of a new day
Compact citizens, however, have access to the US that many people around the world would die for. Every benefit brings detriment. The right to immigrate and live in the US and access solutions to the big three causes of the Micronesian diaspora, education, employment, healthcare, a stable currency all would be on the chopping block of drifting alliances.
As US Ambassador to the Federated States of Micronesia Robert Riley has told the people of Chuuk, the Compacts are unique, born out of a specific moment in history. My own theory is that the US didn’t know what else to do with small, far flung islands with small populations that could become strategic in the event of another conflict and created the Compacts, part nation creation, part diplomatic recognition, part contract, and part aid pact, just to be done with it. The Compacts are far from perfect. FSM, for example, ignored the lessons of early America and its experiment with the Articles of Confederation. But perhaps the greatest flaw with the Compacts is the escape valve they created for individuals, especially those well off, to ignore their own society and live off of someone else’s largesse.
Even the best-laid plans can have results far beyond the imagination of those who created them. The Law of Unintended Consequences. The Islands owe it to themselves to take a hard look at new promises and ask themselves, “What do we really want?”
Gabriel currently lives in Chuuk, Micronesia, where he works for a regional NGO. He likes to write about the world disorder, and If he ever gets enough bandwidth, his blog, the sunburnchronicles, will be fully functioning. Gabrieljmccoard@hotmail.com