The Not-So-Great Game

One of the lesser unsolved mysteries of our time is why countries whose names end in ‘u’ prefer the Republic of China (ROC – Taiwan) to the People’s Republic of China (PRC -Beijing). Of the fifteen countries in the world that still recognise Taiwan as the real and legitimate China, three have ‘u’ at the end of their names: Nauru, Palau and Tuvalu.

They are all South Pacific islands, so the ‘u’ suffix probably just means ‘island’ in the local languages. (I haven’t checked.) But the score is now ten pro-Beijing island countries in the South Pacific to four pro-Taipei ones – and three of those four end in ‘u’. There’s something suspicious going on here, and I think we should be told.

And here comes another one, though without a ‘u’ at the end. Bougainville held a referendum last week on independence from Papua New Guinea (PNG). The result won’t be declared until next week, but it’s clearly going to be pro-independence.

And when, after further negotiations with PNG, the newly independent island nation of Bougainville (pop. 250,000) emerges, it will immediately have to choose between Beijing and Taipei. Why should Bougainvilleans care? Well, they don’t, really, but there’s money on the table.

Both Chinas operate a ‘One China Policy’ that will not permit any country to have diplomatic ties with its adversary, and both will offer significant sums in foreign aid (often including large bribes to key politicians) to get small Pacific Island countries on their side. In fact both the Solomon Islands and Kiribati switched their diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to the People’s Republic just last September.

The game has gone on so long that it is now entrenched in the domestic politics of most of these little countries. The opposition party generally supports diplomatic relations with whichever China is currently not recognised by the governing party, or at least expresses some interest in switching sides.

This produces a satisfactory flow of financial support from the ‘out’ China for the opposition, while the party in government can use that threat to extract a similar but perhaps even larger flow from the ‘in’ China. The case of Kiribati (pop. 117,000) illustrates how the game works.

Kiribati established diplomatic relations with the PRC (Beijing) in 1980, soon after it got its independence from Britain. It stayed that way until 2003, when a new president of Chinese descent, Anote Tong, switched diplomatic recognition to the ROC (Taiwan), and won the next two elections with strong ROC support. In 2016, however, Tong was defeated by a new and well-funded opposition coalition led by Taneti Maamau.

It would have been unseemly to change the country’s diplomatic ties again right away, but when the Solomon Islands switched to Beijing last September President Maamau took the opportunity to do the same. “I do believe that there is much to learn and gain from the People’s Republic of China and the re-establishment of our diplomatic relations is just the beginning,” Maamau said with great sincerity.

Nauru (pop. 11,000) did it in reverse: diplomatic relations with the ROC (Taiwan) in 1980, switch to the PRC in 2002 in return for financial aid of $100 million (that’s $10,000 per person), switch back to the ROC in 2005 in return for unstated favours. Or maybe it was all done as a matter of high principle, but probably not: those were the years when the phosphate-mining industry, Nauru’s main source of income, was collapsing.

The Pacific islanders don’t have a dog in this fight, and there’s nothing shameful in their exploiting a quarrel among the Chinese to further their own interests. It has a certain corrupting effect on their own domestic politics, but then so did the original Great Game, waged in 1830-1895 by the British empire in India and the Russian empire in Central Asia.

That was a competition for the loyalty of various emirates, khanates and tribes in what is now Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, involving ‘political agents’, diplomats, spies and the occasional war. None of those areas was of any real value to either empire, but each was determined to thwart the other.

The original Great Game is retrospectively bathed in romanticism, largely because of Rudyard Kipling’s great novel ‘Kim’, but in reality it was a vicious and pointless competition studded with ambushes, betrayals and beheadings.

The mini-great game now underway in the South Pacific is a great deal tamer. It’s even more pointless than the original, because the southwestern Pacific is arguably the least ‘strategic’ region in the world, and certainly the least important economically. The conflict is purely symbolic, and why shouldn’t the Pacific islanders make a bit of money out of it?

It would be a lot more fun visually, however, if the Chinese wore pith helmets and the islanders wore Afghan headgear.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 10. (“Nauru…collapsing”)