BC’s Tales of the Pacific | The great China-America conflict of 2020

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MARIANAS Variety’s editorial on May 22nd warned that the NMI would soon find itself in the middle of a power struggle in the Pacific. 

A U.S. territory, the Marianas owes a great portion of its economic life to China, the main source of tourism.  The editorial is correct in saying that Saipan may soon find itself in the middle of the “crossfire.”  Here’s why.

As the presidential campaign heats up in America, China will likely be a major point of contention between Trump and the presumed Democrat candidate, Joe Biden.  Throughout his term, the current president has made relations with China the central theme of both his economic and foreign policies.  The Covid-19 crisis has made this only more so, not less. 

All around the world, calls are going forth for an investigation into the origins of the Coronavirus, and not just in a medical sense.  Where did it start?  Who was Patient Zero?  Was the spread of the problem inevitable or was it the result of bad decisions, and if so, by whom?  Was there negligence?  Were there attempts to cover up important information that may have saved lives?  The world rarely experiences an episode of mass death, then shrugs its shoulders and carries on.  Heads may roll.  People will demand to know who was to blame.  If the answer is no one, so be it.  But the question must be asked and answered to everyone’s satisfaction.

Throughout the Pacific, nations are taking sides.  The Philippines and Solomon Islands, among others, have sensed the changing of the political winds and have thrown in Beijing, who they see as the future power in the Pacific.  Others, such as Japan and South Korea, have chosen to stick closely to their allies in America.  Some are not sure which way to go.

Australia is one such vacillating country.  A scan of recent seminars and foreign policy statements reveals great anxiety Down Under.  Historically a strong ally of the United States, Australians wonder if they should make amends with the Chinese, stick with the Americans, or build an independent coalition of neighbors under their own leadership.  Unfortunately, as is often the case in a democracy, politicians may end up deciding what to do based on what is popular in the polls currently, and therefore likely to win the next election.  It would be better to decide what is in the best interests of their country in the long term, but abstract arguments rarely play well with focus groups or at town hall meetings. 

Is American hard and soft power being challenged by China in the Pacific?  Without question.  Is China investing massive resources to dominate the region?  Certainly.  Must other countries, and even places like Saipan, contemplate their position in the coming (some would say already here) clash between the Titans.  Most already are. 

Lord Palmerston once remarked that England has neither friends nor enemies, only interests.  It sounds like the approach the Australians are taking.  However, it is not the practical course the NMI can take.  The Covenant rules that out.  Islanders threw in their lot with the Americans two generations ago and the only way out is to scrap the Covenant, something that is not likely to happen even if it was desirable.

Variety’s editorial used the term “crossfire” to describe the plight of islanders.  Let’s hope the violent term is only a metaphor.

BC Cook, PhD lived on Saipan and has taught history for 20 years. He currently resides on the mainland U.S.

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