Last week’s news of a Chinese couple’s audacious conspiracy to create a mini-state in the Republic of the Marshall Islands, allegedly by bribing members of parliament and officials, was deeply disturbing.
The couple, Cary Yand, Gina Zhou, are now facing corruption charges in the United States.
Their plan, if successful, reportedly could have resulted in the creation of a “semi-autonomous region” on remote Rongelap Atoll to expand foreign access to the Marshall Islands.
Even more absurd than the scheme itself was how far the couple was able to go
e to get before they were blown up. As the BBC reported, a bill supporting the plan actually made it into Parliament in 2018, where it was defeated by then-President Hilda Heine’s government. Heine went so far as to accuse the bill’s supporters of working for China to turn the Marshalls into a “country within a country.”
However, after Heine’s defeat in the 2019 election, the new parliament approved the concept in 2020, paving the way for its establishment. As is often rightly argued, the sovereignty of island nations and their right to do business with whomever they choose should be respected.
However, this case shows that sovereignty can be jeopardized by the very people charged with upholding it, so such action should not be unambiguous and a review should not be viewed or presented as a breach of sovereignty.
According to the indictment, Cary Yan and Gina Zhou bribed several Marshall Islands lawmakers between $7,000 ($15,896) and $22,000 ($49,959) to support the program.
Yan also invested in a private company on behalf of an official, who then appointed Yan as “special adviser” to Rongelap. Both Yan and Zhou became naturalized citizens of the Marshall Islands.
Despite the seriousness of the case, the Marshall Islands government has ignored opposition calls for clarification, which is puzzling; In such situations, a quick and unequivocal response can help clear the air and dispel unreasonable suspicions.
On the other hand, an unresponsive attitude breeds public suspicion and concern – particularly when it comes to the threat to territorial integrity from a potentially corrupt, treacherous corporation.
Contrary to claims made by President Heine in 2018, there is no clear evidence of direct Chinese involvement, although the indictment indicates a typically Chinese strategy of doing business through building personal relationships, sometimes with elements of checkbook diplomacy.
In addition to paying bribes, the defendant paid for the travel, lodging and entertainment of Marshallese lawmakers to Hong Kong for a conference establishing the Ronngelap Atoll Special Administration Region.
An official gave a speech praising the concept. This tactic is reminiscent of the “elite conquest” often associated with the Chinese state and Chinese corporations, with the two elements allegedly working together.
Some Pacific commentators argue that the ambitions of Chinese companies are often closely intertwined with the ambitions of the Chinese state.
Although the involvement of Chinese officials is unclear at this point, there is no denying that the Marshall Islands would be a prime target and main win for them.
The country is one of just 13 countries to have diplomatic ties with Taiwan, and for China, convincing the Marshall Islands to defect would be a huge hit, especially after persuading the Solomon Islands and Kiribati to close sides in recent years switch.
In addition, the Marshall Islands’ free association treaty with the United States expires next year, and Washington has made it a priority to renew the long-standing treaty.
Among other things, the pact guarantees the US free and open military access to the marshals while denying others the same rights. Given the stakes, it’s not inconceivable that China would try to gain influence in the Marshall Islands, especially in the context of recent developments in the region, such as Kiribati’s decision to abandon Taiwan, which cost $66 million (149 .8 million F) was rewarded. Chinese grant followed by its shocking move to lift the moratorium on commercial fishing in the Phoenix Islands.
When Kiribati withdrew from the Pacific Islands Forum in July, its former president Anote Tong quipped that something was “cooking” between Beijing and Tarawa, while opposition leader Tessie Lambourne insisted China was influencing the decision.
Similarly, in the Solomon Islands, allegations by an ABC Four Corners report that a Chinese state-owned company was negotiating the purchase of a WWII deep sea port and airstrip raised widespread suspicion.
As in the Marshall Islands case, there were allegations of bribery and influence-peddling, with Four Corners claiming to show documents from a Chinese bribery fund that distributed nearly $365,000 ($828,869) directly to MPs loyal to Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare .
Solomon Islands Transparency International head Ruth Liloqula claimed: “China is holding this government together. We all assume that China remotely controls the Solomon Islands government and affairs.”
While China has denied the allegations and an angry Sogavare has threatened a national ban on foreign journalists, the Four Corners’ claims are not easy to dismiss given China’s involvement in checkbook diplomacy in the region.
However, the China in the Pacific issue is a sensitive one that is not supported by speculation. The media doesn’t always get it quite right, such as reports of alleged Chinese attempts to develop a deep sea port in Vanuatu.
However, it is also quite risky to downplay Chinese actions in the Pacific and underestimate Beijing’s ambitions and power.
The evidence of the impact of China’s activities in other regions of the world is clear, and it would be naïve to think that the Pacific is somehow different and immune to trends sweeping other countries where China is active.
If anything, the case of the Marshall Islands suggests that while national sovereignty is sacrosanct, it should not be used as a shield to deflect legitimate questions — particularly from those who might be willing to trade national sovereignty for personal gain.
In other words, national sovereignty cannot be divorced from the reality that major decisions in a country are often the prerogative of a few elite, potentially venal leaders operating in secret, able to circumvent the wishes of the people and not always in accordance with them they act in national interests.
• SHAILENDRA SINGH is Director of the School of Journalism at the University of the South Pacific. The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of USP or The Fiji Times. This article was first published in The Strategist magazine.