Dateline Chuuk, Federated States of Micronesia. November 20, 2016. 11:57 AM. In the shadow of coconut palms, overlooking banana trees and piles of trash.
“East Asia,” I once sardonically remarked to a new acquaintance, “is a powder keg in search of a spark.”
He reacted with shock and surprise. At the time, I reveled in my wit. Looking back on it, I wasn’t being astute; I was conducting softball analysis. A similar thing could be said about any region at any point in history.
History, in my personal experience, has a habit of proving wrong those who attempt to predict the future. The world likes to tease us with its constant state of flux where unpredictably reigns supreme. History, however, in the broadest of paradoxes, also teaches us that humans tend to behave in broad, consistent, fairly predictable patterns.
Recent events in the Asia-Pacific Region illustrate the current limbo: the South China Sea Arbitral Award, China’s ascendancy in regional (and global) affairs, and the Ascendancy of the right, notably, of course, the election of Donald Trump to the US Presidency, Rodrigo Duterte’s rise in the Philippines, the return of Ferdinand Marcos to his native soil, Brexit, and the like, each of which is a gear in a wider, as yet to be defined mechanism. America’s extended backyard might have more easements.
As the chaos from World War II subsided, the US found itself in a new role, that of a global power charged with picking up the pieces from the bloodiest war in human history. Its record is mixed, especially in the Pacific. From the outset, it focused on a legalistic approach. Export its institutions. Write a constitution, promulgate a national code, divide a country into states. Create legislatures. Promote the rule of law. In many ways it was naïve; the philosophy of victory drunk on its own optimism, it minimized history and the close to two centuries it took to enact the principles of the Constitution (and forgetting about minor things, like that little civil war in the 1860’s). In short, the problem with the American-ist ideal was the underlying assumption that a legal and political system can be imported, completely divorced of the cultural context.
The states of Micronesia have a bit of an identity problem. Freely associated, for the most part, with the US, exercising a quasi-subsistence, quasi-cash economy, physically closer to Asia than America but culturally worlds away from either, the region has a distinct feeling of uncertainty, compounded. In many ways they are “paper sovereigns ” recognized independents but overseen by the US Department of the Interior. Physical infrastructure is lacking in many places. Safe drinking water is in short supply, remote, and with ocean territory rival
ing the landmass of the United States in size, development has been a casualty of the legalistic approach. They don’t exactly rank highly in economic and quality of life surveys. They do, however, rank highly on scores of outmigration, non-communicable diseases, and the ire of the Governors of Guam, Hawaii, and other states where FAS citizens have gathered.
Enter China. Or rather, re-enter China. For the better part of human history, China has been the world’s largest economy and its largest manufacturer.
In its current form, China is a soft power corpus. To date, it offers a no-strings attached package to build infrastructure. As it has demonstrated throughout the world, it doesn’t care either way about civil society development. But it will build roads and sewer lines, airport terminals and electrical systems. And it will send its people to spend money.
There are hints of development everywhere. The billion-dollar casino under construction in Garapan n Saipan. The throngs of Chinese tourists in Palau. The possibility of casinos in Yap.
The benefits are a no-brainer. The World Bank, Asia Development Bank normally require a sovereign contribution, a payment from the country’s treasury, for ideas that might not work. Government bonds, sovereign finance of infrastructure. Likewise, foreign donors do so for their own purposes. Money for some sort of concession. China’s approach undoubtedly provides a rosier alternative. To date, there have not been requests for anything in return, and a repudiation of the US model. But rest assured, China has a reason.
But caveat emptor. Buyer beware. Have you asked yourselves what you want as a nation, and what you might sacrifice to get it?
(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. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org).