If I may say at the outset, never have I seen so much irrational fear over unsubstantiated claims. While I was fortunate not to have lived through it, drawing on my undergraduate learning of international relations and history, it’s easy to see parallels between the tone and content of current discourse and the red menace campaigns of the 1950s and 60s.
I need not elaborate the basis of unabashed racism and bigotry that gave rise to said campaigns, and why this vein of thought is particularly troubling in our current context. One only needs examine the rise of nationalism and the direct impacts this may come to bear on displaced peoples from the Pacific as a result of climate change to comprehend the significant implications this may pose in years to come. But that’s another matter, for another time.
This trend in the unfettered expression of racist sentiment aside, what concerns me most in the recent escalation of vitriol towards China’s relationship with the Pacific (and the Cook Islands) is that mainstream commentary lacks a differentiated approach to the region. Frustratingly, it is a common mistake to regard the Pacific as a single entity and not as a vast geographical area comprised of different countries with different foreign policies and therefore, differentiated and independent approaches to engagement with China. Even more so, that this non-differentiated approach seems to be upheld even by our own people! I’d expect such ignorance from those outside the region, but for those within. Shame on you all.
The Cook Islands does not have a relationship with China based on the level of dependency of some of our neighbours. One cannot compare how the Cook Islands deals with China as a carbon copy of how our neighbours engage - and vice-versa. Most frustratingly, current criticism fails to consider the agency of each Pacific country to manage their own affairs and in the context of the Cook Islands, as a nation that has significantly evolved the conduct of our affairs over a number of years, this is particularly concerning for the erosion of sovereignty such discourse promulgates.
While I can sympathise with the experience of some our neighbours, it is frustrating to no end how the Cook Islands can be lumped in and categorised as needing to be “saved” (cited most often in current discourse by the apparently benevolent and pure western powers). This goes against the tireless and thankless work of the many Cook Islands officials who toil day in, day out, to uplift and develop the Cook Islands, by Cook Islanders, for Cook Islanders.
Drawing directly from the MOU text itself, the Belt and Road Agreement is a non-legally binding expression of commitment under which cooperation between China and the Cook Islands can be expanded in areas of mutual agreement.
The Cook Islands joins more than 60 countries that have already signed the BRI over the last two years, including New Zealand who signed in 2017. As has already been publicly communicated at the highest levels, there are no secret deals. Unless the Cook Islands Constitution has been miraculously amended without anyone’s knowledge, the customary land laws of the Cook Islands cannot magically evaporate therefore allowing for a sudden take-over by any foreign state. Alarmist claims of militarisation of any of the Cook Islands pa enua are likewise unfounded and baseless.
Engagement strategies such at the Belt and Road Initiative are not new. The US-Japan-Australia led initiative known as the Indo-Pacific Strategy is similar in intent and focus and yet has not been met with the same level of outrage. Domestic politics aside, New Zealand’s “Reset” has been lauded with jubilation and unfettered praise. The same applies when considering Australia’s “Step Up”, and both commit serious finance towards all manner of areas of cooperation, including security. I can only draw one conclusion when examining the baseless outrage expressed towards China’s engagement and unfortunately, this stinks overwhelmingly of racism.
Without putting too blunt an edge on this rant, let us not forget those super powers who have an actual military presence in the Pacific (Pago Pago anyone? Palau?). Or those who have actually used, and contaminated, our islands as testing grounds for nuclear weapons. Or indeed those who wiped out vast tracts of our populations through the (avoidable) introduction of western disease!
We cannot even resign such cataclysmic destruction of our populations to history when we consider the introduction of western food and consumer-driven lifestyles and the enduring effects these are having via the emergence of non-communicable diseases as the greatest threat to the health and wellbeing of our people today. How about those nations that kidnapped Pacific peoples to provide the labour base for their emerging economies? Some may argue that while blackbirding, by the strictest of definitions no longer occurs, the outwards exodus of our own people to shore up the emerging economies of our more affluent neighbours continues today, to the detriment of our own developing economy.
Notwithstanding the enduring history of Pacific exploitation by international super powers, we continue to direct unbridled vitriol towards the Cook Islands engagement with China alone. Let me be clear- history clearly shows the Pacific, and the Cook Islands, have been exploited by the developed world for centuries.
The US used Aitutaki as a military air force base during World War Two. Spain are the single largest purse seiners in the Cook Islands. New Zealand exports just under $100 million worth of goods to the Cook Islands every year (this in comparison with approx. $20 million in “aid” a year)- tell me, how does this balance of trade vs. aid favour the Cooks? There have been two key candidatures to multilateral organisations in recent years for groupings classified as “Asia-Pacific”, where a Pacific voice continues to be denied. There are around 60,000 people of Cook Islands descent resident in New Zealand and a further estimate of around 30,000 in Australia, each of whom is contributing to the economic and social development of those countries.
For the hundreds of online commenters who I suppose are now experts in foreign affairs, governance and financial management, my question is this: what are you doing, besides trawling social media for a chance to espouse your ill-informed opinions, to actually contribute towards the development of the Cook Islands?
If you’re pontificating from New Zealand, Australia or further abroad, please take several seats while those of us actually willing to put in the hard work and sacrifice for our ipukarea actually get on with developing our country.
I would like to offer some words of encouragement for our Cook Islands officials and leadership. On behalf of those who care to learn more about facts than fake news, those who take an interest in the evolution of the Cook Islands beyond the newsfeed of Facebook, I thank you for your efforts to lift the development of our nation. I acknowledge the agency of each of you to comprehend, negotiate and navigate our country through this period of renewed interest, and I encourage you all to continue working hard for the betterment of our nation now and into the future.
The future of the country depends on our officials and leadership developing and maintaining an ‘eyes wide open’ approach and an ongoing commitment to Cook Islanders leading the development of our country.
We must not let the geo-political tensions of our Pacific rim neighbours cloud our judgement nor ability to scan the horizon for opportunities that prioritise our own development needs- their issues are not automatically ours.
No reira, kare ta tatou korero i ki. Ka oki aka’ou tatou ka ko’iko’i. Kia vai ki te vairanga no te au uki e tu mai nei.
Kia mou, kia au tatou.