Friday, October 6, 2017
Cleo Paskal outlines the West’s fears as a key ally develops closer links with China
Something is going on Down Under. In the past few months, a constant stream of serious Washington players have passed through Australia, including Vice-President Mike Pence, Defense Secretary James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Senator John McCain, former CIA Director David Petraeus and former US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.
This many high-level visits in such a short period of time is highly unusual. The reason was summed up by the oft-repeated message: watch out for China and don’t forget who your real friends are.
McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said: ‘The challenge is that as China has grown wealthier and stronger, it seems to be acting more and more like a bully ... the real question is whether Australia and America are better off dealing with China’s strategic and economic challenges together, or by ourselves.’
Petraeus said the US understood the Australian position was complex because its main trading partner, China, was also its main security concern. However, Australia should still participate in ‘hugely important’ freedom of navigation exercises in the region.
Clapper, who took up a post with the Australian National University’s National Security College, raised questions about Chinese money in Australian politics.
This overlapped with growing Australian concerns about Chinese influence. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation and Fairfax Media published an in-depth investigation into Chinese state-linked interference in Australia. Using data from the Australian Security Intelligence Organization, or ASIO, they highlighted cases of ‘naked in uence-buying’.
ASIO’s director-general told the Aus- tralian parliament that the scale of foreign interference in Australia was ‘unprecedented’ and had ‘the potential to cause serious harm to the nation’s sovereignty, the integrity of our political system, our national security capabilities, our economy and other interests’. Australia’s Attorney General travelled to Washington where he received intelligence briefings on the degree of Chinese state-linked interference in Australia’s political, business and academic sectors before returning to Australia and announcing he would propose major changes to the laws on foreign influence buying.
Members of the defence and intelligence communities do not like making public statements. They must have felt the situ- ation was so dire they needed to go public. It seems as if there is a civil war at the heart of the Australian policy community and it all boils down to one core question: strategically, what is Australia?
For at least a decade there has been growing concern in the strategic community inside Australia, and among its allies, that Australia’s economic ties to China could affect it national security and strategic positioning. However, with some exceptions, the Australian political, business and academic communities continue to deepen engagement, seemingly fuelled by the assumption that the West is in decline and China’s economy will grow indefinitely.
‘Others in Australia don’t have a problem with the country trying to play a balancing role between Beijing and Washington’
An event that captured this tension involved the commercially and strategically important northern Australian city of Darwin. There had been substantial political resistance in Australia to a request to allow US Marines to train and be stationed in Darwin. Eventually, in 2011, Canberra agreed to let 2,500 American Marines rotate through. However, four years later, the Northern Territory government suddenly announced that the lease to the critically important port of Darwin itself was going to a Chinese military-linked company, Landbridge, for 99 years. US officials were reportedly ‘stunned’.
It didn’t help matters that the former Australian trade minister, Andrew Robb, a key player in the Australia-China free trade agreement, soon joined Landbridge as a consultant, on a reported salary of £43,000 a month, plus expenses.
While many in the Australian intelligence and defence communities are deeply concerned by such things, others in Australia don’t have a problem with the country trying to play a ‘balancing’ role between Beijing and Washington. One of the best-known books on the topic is The China Choice: Why we should share power, by Hugh White, a former Australian defence official.
In it, he calls for a ‘concert of Asia’ in which China and the US work together in the region. How countries such as Vietnam, Japan, Taiwan and others would feel about this ‘sharing’ isn’t greatly explained. This wasn’t a marginal book. It was launched by the former Australian prime minister Paul Keating who said: ‘I have long held the view that the future of Asian stability cannot be cast by a non- Asian power – especially by the application of US military force.’ By using the term Asia instead of Pacific, Keating implies the US is external to the region.
Which points to another increasingly discussed aspect of the ‘what is Australia’ question. Is Australia a western outpost in Asia, or an Asian country that has a lot of people with genetic roots from Europe?
Strategically and structurally, the answer is clear. Australia is part of the core western Five Eyes intelligence sharing partnership, along with the US, the UK, New Zealand and Canada. The five countries collaborate closely on intelligence issues, which is why an Australian ‘drift’ is of such concern to Washington and London.
Under Five Eyes, different countries effectively lead in different geographic areas. Australia, and to a degree New Zealand, are considered the strategic leaders within Five Eyes for much of the vast area of Oceania.
Oceania, consisting of more than a dozen Pacific island countries, covers close to a sixth of the planet’s surface, and is the front line between Asia and the Americas. Many Pacific island countries don’t have a US embassy, but they have an Australian and a New Zealand one, and Canberra and Wellington are heavily consulted during US diplomatic and military visits to the region.
In this context, it is worth noting that many of the concerns about Chinese influence in Australian politics are replicated in New Zealand, as was made clear in Anne-Marie Brady’s study Magic Weapons: China’s Political Influence Activities Under Xi Jinping. One recent example revealed that Jian Yang, a sitting New Zealand MP and former member of the select committee for foreign affairs, defence and trade, used to teach in China at an elite Chinese intelligence-training institution. When asked about it, he replied: ‘If you define those cadets or students as spies, yes, then I was teaching spies. I don’t think so. I just think they are collecting information through communication in China.’ New Zealand is also overtly collaborating with China on development projects in Oceania.
The delegation of strategic ‘management’ of Oceania to Canberra and Wellington by Washington may make sense to the defence and intelligence communities if one assumes that Australian and New Zealand interests in the region dove-tail with American ones. But that is open to question, even by Australians themselves. As Mathew Davies, the head of the international relations department at the Australian National University put it: ‘What is Australia’s role in the Asia Pacific? Should we continue to see ourselves as a close ally of the US or should we look at what Australia wants?’
As a result, the concerns about Chinese in uence over domestic a airs in Australia and New Zealand are seeping into the way Washington and others are looking at the advice they are getting from Canberra and Wellington on Oceania. There have been several cases in which it seems Australia and New Zealand were doing what they want, even if it might not help regional stability or greater western interests.
For example, it has been reported that Australia pressured Nauru to transfer recognition from Taiwan to China. Also, the advice out of Canberra and Wellington on how to deal with Fiji after its coup was sup- posed to force Fiji into democratic concessions. Instead, Fiji turned to China, with which it has since developed close ties.
Which is not to say the outcomes favourable to China are desired. Often Australia and New Zealand’s action in Oceania seems to be driven by domestic economic factors. But, even then, given how entrenched China is becoming, what looks like trade actually has larger strategic implications.
The current example is the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations Plus, or PACER Plus, a trade deal involving Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific island countries.
Canberra and Wellington have been pushing for PACER Plus for more than a decade. It is designed to have the island countries drop tariffs on most goods coming from Australia and New Zealand, have them rewrite their regulations, get rid of policies that protect domestic innovation, make it easier to pressure the islands into privatizing state-owned enterprises, and undermine the islands’ ability to sign bilateral trade deals with countries outside the zone. A particular concern of Australia and New Zealand was a potential UK or European Union trade deal with the islands.
‘Concern is spreading as more realize how weakness in one part of the West’s
interlinked system can cascade exponentially’
As most of the Pacific island countries enjoy duty-free and quota-free access for exports to Australia and New Zealand, and many national budgets rely on import tariffs that will disappear with PACER Plus, it is hard to see the advantage for the islands.
However, Australia and New Zealand had large dedicated teams, including members from their own business sectors, negotiating PACER Plus, while most of the island countries have few trade negotiators. As a result Canberra and Welling- ton funded an organization to negotiate on behalf of the island countries, with a team led by an Australian-educated Ghanaian with little knowledge of the complexities of the island economies. This combined with intense lobbying from Australia and New Zealand that was described as ‘bullying and cheque-book diplomacy’ and resulted in recalcitrant civil servants in at least one island country being red.
In June, Australia, the Cook Islands, Nauru, Kiribati, New Zealand, Niue, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga and Tuvalu signed PACER Plus. The deal, which Australia and New Zealand were touting as promoting regional economic integration, is already creating fractures in the region.
One of the largest island economies, Papua New Guinea, failed to sign saying the deal was completely in Australia and New Zealand’s favour. Neither did Fiji, because of the ‘very restrictive’ third party most-favoured-nation clause. The King of Tonga dissolved his parliament and called a new election in part because of the lack of consultation on PACER Plus.
It seems as if Washington wasn’t thrilled with the deal either. The three island countries in Free Association with the US, the Federated States of Micronesia, Palau and the Marshall Islands, somehow managed to miss the signing because of ‘transportation issues’. The possibility of them joining later, as Vanuatu has, has not been mentioned.
On the face of it, PACER Plus is also problematic for regional security on strictly economic grounds. It is likely to increase food insecurity as pressure is put on island countries to privatize customary land currently being used as family allotments. It is likely to bring cheaper, lower quality food into the islands, increasing obesity and diabetes, already a serious issue in the region, and making domestic food production less pro table. It will also deprive already struggling governments of critical tariff income − forcing them to look for more Chinese loans. All this can combine to create internal dislocation and increasing urbanization and poverty and all for very minimal benefit to a very narrow range of Australian and New Zealand businesses.
The projections get even more serious when one overlays the ‘China factor’. For example, one of the priorities for Australia and New Zealand is the privatization of state-owned enterprises in the islands. This means ports, airports, telecoms and other pieces of critical infrastructure.
Chinese-linked companies have been trying to gain access to these for years given the critical strategic positioning of the island countries. It is not a great leap to think it possible that Australian or New Zealand companies, backed by Chinese government-linked money, will wait for Canberra and Wellington to force the privatization of, say, ports in the island countries, and then come in with the best bids, as they did in Darwin.
Many in the Australian defence and intelligence communities are worried about the way things are going. And that concern is spreading, as more realize how weakness in one part of the West’s interlinked systems can cascade exponentially. It’s not just Washington that wants to know the answer to the question ‘what is Australia?’.
Cleo Paskal is an associate fellow of the Energy, Environment and Resources Department at Chatham House, and a Trudeau Visiting Fellow and Director of The Oceania Project at the Centre d’études et de recherches internationales de l’Université de Montréal
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Remarks from Tonga’s prime minister make public an open secret about crime in the Chinese community.
Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Tonga ‘Akilisi Pohiva has publicly said he’s concerned some members of Tonga’s Chinese community might be hiring hitmen to target rivals within their own community. In so doing, Pohiva has said out loud what is an open secret in many parts of Oceania, and beyond.
In a range of countries, some of the recently arrived Chinese immigrants are bringing with them the norms of the business sector in mainland China. Many parts of China are a wild west. There are entire “gangsterized” villages and endless examples of the impunity (and immunity) with which powerful people can act. The recent case of Bo Xilai, the former party secretary of Chongqing who became enmeshed in a murder case, shone a bit of light into the depth of the rot.
Many of the Chinese who come and work in shops in Tonga, Samoa, Fiji, and elsewhere in Oceania didn’t have much money to begin with. In Tonga’s case, many immigrants are recruited from rural areas of China by one of the handful of major Chinese business people operating in the Kingdom. Often they have to borrow either from friends, family, or illicit sources to get the money for the flights, passports, visas, and set-ups costs. All too often they end up passing through criminal emigration operations. That means some were enmeshed with corrupt, and possibly criminal, activity before even landing in Oceania. And now those organizations know where they live.
Additionally, in Tonga, newly arrived Chinese have taken over about 80 percent of the retail sector in around the last decade. Many of the Chinese who run shops are still linked back into Chinese systems through supply chains and family.
While there are notable exceptions, including intermarriage, many of the newly arrived Chinese take local citizenship if they can, but they tend to see countries like Tonga as either a place to make money before returning to China, or as a stepping stone to other countries, including New Zealand and Australia – if not for them, then for their children. Many don’t intend to set down permanent roots, and so tend not to value integration into local society.
Tonga, like much of the rest of the region, is community-based and church is important. There are regular fundraisers, sharing of crops, and food to be made for communal events. Most of the Chinese community stays outside this network of obligations.
If a Tongan owned a shop, they would be expected to contribute to the community. The Chinese don’t, lowering their operating costs (in addition to being able to source directly from contacts in China). No matter how hard a Tongan worked, it would be very difficult to compete with a Chinese shop. It is not a level playing field. This can result in resentment from the Tongan population, exacerbating insularity in the Chinese community. It is one of the reasons why Chinese shops were targeted during the Tongan riots of 2006, and why a village in Samoa has decided to ban any new Chinese shops from customary land.
The insularity of some in the Chinese community has contributed to the perpetuation of more unsavory mainland business practices. In Tonga recently arrived Chinese have been involved in human trafficking, prostitution, kidnapping and ransom, smuggling, corruption, bribery, gambling, arson, and murder. Then there is the visa fraud, fraudulent passport use, attempts to bribe customs, fencing of stolen property, etc. All in a country with a total population of around 100,000, where the Chinese population is only around 3 percent.
There isn’t much crime in Tonga, and official numbers put Chinese community-related crime at about 3 percent of total crime. But that percentage is misleading because the majority of crime within the Chinese community is never reported – it tends to be the most extreme cases, or cases involving Tongans, that find their way into the police statistics. Most adult Tongans in the capital, Nuku’alofa, can tell you where the Chinese brothels were, or are, and some of the gambling locations. They rarely get busted.
More troubling is that Tongans are sometimes enlisted as enforcers or proxies. There are multiple cases of Chinese businesspeople trying to enlist Tongans to burn down competitors’ shops, smuggle drugs, or assaultrivals within the community. This spreading of criminality into the general population is socially corrosive in the tight knit communities of Oceania. If, for example, the same China-produced fentanyl that is doing such damage in North America is brought into Oceania’s societies, it may take a very long time to recover. There are already signs meth might be making it in to Tonga.
Obviously, not all Chinese in Tonga are involved in illegal activity. In fact, some of the biggest victims of the criminality are other members of the Chinese community. Also, there are at least three distinct (though sometimes overlapping) types of crime:
- Transnational crime that passes through Tonga incidentally (for example using Tonga as a transshipment point when smuggling drugs between South America and Australia).
- Crime in Tonga with direct links back to China (possibly via organized crime groups)
- Crime within the Chinese community in Tonga
It’s unclear how much, if any, of this is linked to people in the Chinese “system,” either officially or unofficially. So, the question is how to tackle this before it gets worse?
For transnational crime, regional coordination and intelligence sharing is key. Australia and New Zealand are coordinating with other regional governments, including France, and are doing some good work in that area.
But, when it comes to domestic crime in Tonga, unfortunately New Zealand has other priorities that have seriously hampered crime prevention efforts.
Wellington has been focused on achieving a certain sort of regime change in Tonga. For at least a century various political leaders in New Zealand have been sporadically trying to break and bring to heel the complex political, economic, and social structures in Tonga. This is in part because New Zealand wants Tongan customary land, currently administered by the heads of the extended families (aka the “Nobles”), to be privatized. Some of Wellington’s recent efforts involved backing and funding, in at least one case via an NGO, the “democratic” group that was involved in the 2006 riot. During that riot, to avoid bloodshed and valuing lives over property, the Tongan police did not heavily intervene, eventually stepping aside to let the Tongan military secure the situation, which they did.
With Tonga in shock, New Zealand (and Australia) used the opening to propose a tripartite tied-aid policing agreement that would put a New Zealand police officer in place as Tonga’s Police Commissioner. Since then, three New Zealanders have filled the post. None spoke Tongan, let alone Mandarin, or had spent much time in Tonga before the posting. All have had serious problems building trust with the police force, and have forced officers to enact policies that are breaking down trust between officers and their communities, affecting information flows.
All also executed operations that raised questions about whom they were serving. One of those operations initiated a series of arrests of Nobles seemingly designed to discredit them as a group. Most of the charges were subsequently dismissed by the Supreme Court, with one Noble even successfully suing for back pay owed as a result of him losing his Parliamentary seat due to the false charges. Another operation involved seizing databases from the Tongan Immigration Ministry and sending them out of the country (presumably to New Zealand) for analyses. No convictions have resulted from the seizure.
The current Police Commissioner is focused on arresting people who are sitting by the road, or in their front yard, casually drinking on a Friday or Saturday night, even if they aren’t committing (other) crimes. He’s arrested hundreds of young men. Now that they have criminal records for doing something many New Zealanders do every weekend, they will have a much harder time getting a visa for further education, work, etc.
Meanwhile, the problems in the Chinese community go unaddressed — or worse, misaddressed. At the end of March, under the watchful eye of the current New Zealander Police Commissioner, the prime minister of Tonga was made to apologize to the ambassador of China for the crimes against Chinese in Tonga. The Chinese ambassador also complained that “the reasonable compensation claims by the victims were not earnestly responded [to] or implemented.”
It’s unclear why, as the man in charge of policing, the Commissioner himself wasn’t the one to take responsibility. Rather, the Commissioner had earlier “addressed” the problem by bringing an ethnic Chinese New Zealand police officer to Tonga to act as a community liaison. A liaison between which parties was unclear as he also didn’t speak Tongan.
The Chinese ambassador gave the liaison department a car, but has yet to substantially cooperate with the Tongan government on background checks for Chinese in Tonga.
Another interesting component of the whole event was that to the ambassador, ethnicity and not citizenship was the determining factor. The ambassador, as a representative of the state of China, claimed to speak for all ethnic Chinese, regardless of whether they are from Taiwan, Fiji, or Tonga. It gives no space for a Sino-Tongan community separate from Beijing to develop.
This link between the Chinese state and overseas communities occasionally pops into high relief. For example, in 2006, there were riots in the Solomon Islands that targeted the ethnic Chinese community. Locals were incensed at what appeared to be corruption and favoritism linking Solomon Island decision-makers and some newly arrived Chinese. China evacuated hundreds of Chinese to China. Interestingly, the Solomon Islands didn’t even have official diplomatic relations with China, as it recognized Taiwan. But the perception was that the Chinese state, via its overseas community, was creating a back channel into the decision-making structure.
All this doesn’t help dispel the feeling that a large part of the Chinese community is in, but apart from, Tonga. And that, as long as China stays China, overseas communities are vulnerable, through family or business ties, to the whims of someone back on the mainland. It also inhibits ethnic Chinese from becoming more integrated into local society.
Less than two weeks later the Tongan prime minister, who seems to have better information sources than the Commissioner, couldn’t hold it in any longer and out came the comments about the hitmen.
The Tongans know what is going on, but policing directives out of Wellington are making it increasingly difficult to build the trust necessary to have the information networks required to actually do something about it. It is emblematic of an approach to the region in which some of Wellington’s “stabilizing” operations can actually create more problems for all concerned because, fundamentally, New Zealand don’t seem to trust regional allies to be able to understand and resolve their own problems. Not only does it make more difficult for the countries concerned, it can actually drive them away from wanting to cooperate in the future.
The countries of Tonga and China are working together in a range of areas. For example, soon after the apology, China announced it would be funding and building a $25 million sports complex for Tonga’s upcoming hosting of the Pacific Games.
That engagement will continue with or without the spread of crime in and around the Chinese community. It would be better for all concerned, including China, if it were without. For that to happen, New Zealand (and China) needs to get out of the way and let the Tongans assess and solve their own domestic problems, for the good of all involved.
Cleo Paskal is an Associate Fellow, Chatham House (U.K.); Visiting Trudeau Fellow, CÉRIUM (Canada); and Adjunct Faculty, Manipal University (India).