"The time for colonization has gone forever, but some intermediate transition system is essential if chaos is not to follow. "
— Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in 1961, regarding the creation
of what would become the Peace Corps.
At the risk of becoming the Reader’s Digest of the Pacific, allow me to summarize two recent headlines from the islands: Palau’s defiance of Chinese “bullying” through a tourism ban (just switch diplomatic recognition and pluck away one more friend of Taiwan, and the teeming hordes will return), and Chuuk’s defiance of the U.S. by threatening to align itself with China.
Any mention of China and development inevitably brings up the latest entry in the international affairs lexicon: debt-trap diplomacy. In short, this is the practice of offering enticing loans to develop infrastructure, gain the means to access mineral reserves (which many nations lack), and the like. After the first loan comes another, and in the meantime, roads are being built, seaports dredged, runways extended, without the host government having to do a thing, including provide labor in many instances.
Think of it as student loans for adolescent republics.
But, as economists say, there’s no such thing as a free lunch, and sooner or later payments have to be made, and it turns out that these loans are designed for default, and when that happens, a new flag gets hoisted over the airport as critical infrastructure, useful for commercial and military purposes alike, falls under non-native control.
Numerous other outlets are declaring the mere suggestion of Chuukese independence endangers the entirety of U.S. national security and undermines all U.S. foreign policy. Ok, I’m exaggerating somewhat, but the sentiment is there.
At this point, the regional situation has been analyzed to death, and all anyone can do is wait and see. What specifically do foreign nations want out of the Pacific Islands, and what will happen if they get it? What property rights will Chinese entities gain in Micronesia? Seabed mining? Fishing? Timber? Copra? Communications installations? To simply be a thorn in the side of the United States? This same question applies throughout the world, whether to ports in Sri Lanka and Djibouti, or highways crisscrossing Africa, or financing American universities with students paying international tuition rates.
This column has posed such questions before; to raise them now is simply to repeat myself.
There are too many unknowns at this point. Maybe nothing will change if Micronesia becomes a Chinese satellite. Aside from more Chinese citizens and a direct linkup to Beijing, daily life will continue as normal.
Every outside power has had a profound influence on the islands, as they have elsewhere. German anthropologists remain a go-to source of information. The Japanese substantially impacted land tenure, a topic that has become so convoluted that most U.S.-trained lawyers and judges cannot understand them.
The U.S. introduced a formal legal system, with mixed results. Very mixed.
After the dusts of war – radioactive and other – settled, the American chapter created perhaps the most significant changes, ironic to its core: sovereignty and diaspora. The Compacts of Free Association solidified the standing of the Micronesian nations, setting them free to, within certain limits, conduct their own foreign policy and regulate their own affairs. It also allowed open migration to the U.S., and not just for the best and brightest. An indelible feature of the Micronesian social landscape is time spent in the U.S.
Foreign aid is offered to further some objective of the nation offering it. President Kennedy, after all, created the Peace Corps as a form of soft power to undermine communism. At this point that should come as no surprise.
But in the meantime, I have no choice other than to wait and see.
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Gabriel McCoard currently lives in Chuuk, FSM, where he works for a regional NGO. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org