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Asia in the Pacific Islands: Replacing the West

Reviewed by Bertil Lintner

Asia in the Pacific Islands: Replacing the West, by Ron Crocombe. Institute of Pacific Studies Publications. 644 pages. $49. Available from

A spectacular transition is underway in the Pacific Islands, New Zealand academic Ron Crocombe writes in this excellent and very detailed study of recent economic, geopolitical and demographic changes in the tiny nations of the vast ocean between Asia and American continents. While the original settlers of this maritime region came from Asia, for most of the past two centuries almost every island was a colony of a Western power. But that old Western influence, or some would say dominance, is changing as Asians have begun to play a bigger role in all aspects of life on the Pacific Islands. And that process is irreversible, Mr. Crocombe argues.

Hawaii, Guam, the Northern Marianas and American Samoa are still United States possessions while the French are holding out in New Caledonia, French Polynesia, and Wallis and Futuna—and tiny Pitcairn, home of descendants of the famous 1789 mutiny on the Bounty, is one of the United Kingdom’s few remaining colonies. The Cook Islands and Niue are self-governing territories in free association with New Zealand, and the Tokelaus are a New Zealand overseas territory that has rejected “free association status” in a recent referendum. But these territories—except Hawaii, which is a U.S. state—are rapidly becoming anachronistic remnants of former empires.

In a way, Asia could be said to be reclaiming the Pacific from the Western powers. The first wave of migrants to the region came thousands of years ago from the arc of islands that line Asia’s Pacific coast, from Taiwan to the Philippines and eastern Indonesia. They were either Papuans or Austronesians, related to today’s Filipinos, Indonesians, Malays and indigenous Taiwanese.

In the second wave, which lasted from around 1800 to the end of World War II, many Asians arrived in the Pacific as well—but then in tow of the European colonial powers. The British brought Indians to work in the sugar fields in Fiji, and Vietnamese settled as laborers and traders in the French colonies. Small—and some rather large—communities of Chinese, mostly traders, emerged on most islands across the Pacific during the colonial era.

But the third wave is very different. The past 40 or so years have seen four new patterns of Asian immigration, Mr. Crocombe states. The first consists of low-skill, low-cost workers for factories, hotels, restaurants, logging camps and fisheries. Others are Asian professionals, mostly from countries where income is low such as the Philippines, India and even Burma. Entrepreneurs have come mainly from Taiwan and Southeast Asia, but increasingly also from mainland China.

The fourth group is perhaps the least welcome: organized criminals who are taking advantage of weak policing and corrupt governments. “The numbers of all four categories are likely to grow,” according to Mr. Crocombe. No exact numbers of migrants are known as many have entered the region “informally,” i.e., without residence papers, or with passports bought in the countries where they have settled. But anecdotal evidence suggests that migrants from mainland China are the most numerous. They have made their presence felt in most Pacific territories—which Beijing should be pleased about as many of them remain loyal to the country of their birth. Timber and minerals from Papua New Guinea, and fish from all over the Pacific are coveted exports, and the Chinese, like migrants from any other nation elsewhere in the world, prefer to deal with local entrepreneurs and middlemen from their own country.

But the Pacific is important to Beijing also for several strategic reasons. One is that Taiwan, or, as it is officially called, the Republic of China, has long endeavored to win diplomatic recognition from the impoverished nations of the Pacific—and Beijing has striven hard to deny Taipei claims to international legitimacy.

Taiwan’s efforts in the Pacific have always come with generous offers of aid, something that many of the resource-starved island states desperately need. As a result, the Marshall Islands, the Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Kiribati, Nauru and Palau recognize Taiwan, not China. Beijing has more recently taken a page from Taipei’s check-book diplomacy by providing funds for government buildings and sports stadiums in Vanuatu, Samoa, Fiji, Papua New Guinea and even the not-quite-so-independent Cook Islands. According to Mr. Crocombe:

China is now the most solicitous at massaging egos and giving politically targeted aid. When governments change, China is the first with congratulatory messages. Those visiting China are treated to the utmost opulence and luxury … heads of state have a Boeing 737 set aside for their personal use…. Comparative figures are not available, but informed sources believe China invites more politicians, officials and other influential Islanders than any other country.

But there are bigger geopolitical stakes in the Pacific. China’s inroads into a region that has long been regarded as America’s sphere of influence could lead to a new Cold War, in which the U.S. and China compete for strategic advantage. But, as Mr. Crocombe also writes, “China may not pose an active military challenge to the USA and its current allies for some decades. It learned from Japan’s pre-World War II experience not to expand militarily before it has the power to hold its gains. China is more likely to build economic, political and military capacity while persuading the Islanders to shift their primary allegiance.”

Most studies of Pacific Island affairs may be of little interest outside a relatively narrow circle of anthropologists, historians and marine biologists—but this book is definitely an exception. It deals with fundamental changes in a strategically important region that have gone almost unnoticed in the rest of the world. And no one could have outlined and analyzed those changes better than Mr. Crocombe. Now in his late 70s, he has spent most of his life on various Pacific islands, and has lived for many years in Rarotonga, the most populous of the Cook Islands. He is considered the doyen of Pacific studies and has written numerous books and articles on all aspects of life and society in the region. But this megastudy is more than a book about island life. No one concerned with the geopolitics of the entire Asia-Pacific can neglect this work.

This review first appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, January, 2008

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