East Asia

Taiwan and the Pacific: Contracting for Recognition

On March 15, 2010, a number of newspapers announced that Taiwanese President Ma Ying-Jeou would visit his country’s allies in the South Pacific: Nauru, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Palau, Tuvalu, and Solomon Islands. Such headlines were doubly wrong. The region specified is not exactly in the South Pacific, and the countries mentioned are not exactly allies of Taiwan.

To be sure, much of the territory of the six countries on Ma’s itinerary is in the South Pacific, but roughly 40 percent actually lies in the North Pacific (see map). This minor error is extremely common; Palau and the Marshall Island (along with the Federated States of Micronesia, Guam, and the Northern Marianas) are almost always conceptualized as being in the South Pacific, despite the fact that they are entirely north of the Equator that divides the ocean into its northern and southern halves. This unmoored usage of the term “south” stems from a time when the entire Pacific was called the South Sea (or Mer du Sud; see map above), referencing the fact that mariners usually entered the ocean from the south, sailing around the tip of South America.

Additionally, regardless of where they are situated, it is not quite accurate to describe these countries as allies of Taiwan. An ally, according to the common definition, is a “state formally cooperating with another for military or other purposes.” It is difficult to imagine Nauru, a mined-out semi-wasteland of eight square miles and fourteen thousand people, coming to the aid of Taiwan for military or any other purposes. The relationship between these countries and Taiwan is actually one of clientage rather than alliance. In essence, Nauru, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Tuvalu, Palau, and Solomon Islands sell their diplomatic recognition to Taiwan in exchange for aid. Taiwan thereby gains a small measure of international legitimacy, while these small Pacific countries gain much needed financial resources. A couple of them have switched their recognition between Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China on several occasions, rewarding the more generous patron with their acknowledgement. Nor are they alone in the practice; Taiwan maintains the diplomatic recognition of 23 countries in total.

Nauru was once a rich little country with vast phosphate deposits. But the mines have been played out and the trust fund looted, putting Nauru in a desperate situation. Its only real resource now is diplomatic, based on its status as a recognized sovereign state. In 2009, it received $50 million from Russia in exchange for recognizing the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Such recognition may seem to mean little in practice, but it evidently has value.

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Jiangsu and Zhejiang: The World’s Most Important Ignored Places

The standard geographical model of the world, as this blog seeks to demonstrate, unduly emphasizes the sovereign state (or “country”). States, of course, are vitally important, but so too are other geographical entities. The fixation on the independent country, compounded by the myth of continents, elevates some parts of the world while slighting others. China and India in particular are short-changed. These two are not merely large Asian countries, as France and Germany are large European countries. China and India are rather subcontinental landmasses comparable to Europe as a whole. In terms of population, they are roughly an order of magnitude larger than most other large countries, dwarfing anything in Europe. As a result, individual Chinese provinces and Indian states are comparable not to provinces of European countries, but rather to those countries in their entirety. Thus the Indian state of Maharashtra is analogous to Germany in terms of its area, population, cultural distinctiveness, and so on. Yet Maharashtra, like other Indian states, is little noticed outside of India, regarded merely as a local area within a rather monolithic country.

The slighting of first-order administrative divisions in the world’s two mega-countries is strikingly evident in the case of the Chinese provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang. To say that these provinces are little known in the rest of the world would be a gross understatement. Yet they are China’s two wealthiest provinces (excluding the province-level municipalities of Beijing and Shanghai; see map above). Both are slightly smaller than England in area; Zhejiang’s population (47 million) is a little less than that of England, whereas Jiangsu’s (77 million) is substantially larger. For most of the past several hundred years, northern Zhejiang and southern Jiangsu have formed the economic and, arguably, the intellectual heartland of China; today, together with Shanghai, they form one of the country’s three core areas (the other being Beijing-Tianjin in the north, and Hong Kong-Shenzhen-Guangzhou in the south). The Jiangsu-Zhejiang region is now one of the main engines of the world economy; no matter how one examines it, it is a tremendously important place. Yet outside of China, neither province receives much notice. Instead, they vanish away into an almost undifferentiated China.

The slighting of these two provinces is evidenced by their low visibility in the global media. On March 14, 2010, the indispensible Google News aggregator listed 1,377 stories containing the word “Zhejiang” and 1,365 with “Jiangsu.” These are not large numbers: a similar search for “Netherlands” (a much smaller European country) yielded 35,290 hits, while “England” (a comparable European sub-state entity) gave 166,624 returns. Asian countries of similar population also returned vastly more news articles (27,755 for Thailand). Even the smallest states in the U.S. are mentioned far more often in the news sources surveyed by Google, with Rhode Island receiving 16,271 mentions on March 14, 2010. (Note: surveying the Google news aggregator is far from perfect, as it searches for the word rather than the place; as a result, “Hunan” is somewhat over-represented due to the prevalence of “Hunan restaurants” in the United States.)

Not only are Zhejiang and Jiangsu generally overlooked in the global media, but when they are discussed the stories seldom go beyond narrow business concerns. Today’s top Google news story for Jiangsu is “AOU Submitted Application to Establish Subsidiary in Kunshan, Jiangsu,” and for Zhejiang it is “Toyota Should Compensate China Drivers, Official Says.” Areas of comparable significance in other parts of the world are generally reported on more comprehensively.

News from China, of course, is limited by China’s own restrictions on the press. But it is notable that other Chinese administrative divisions are covered much more extensively than Zhejiang and Jiangsu. The map above shows how many Google news stories were returned on March 14, 2010 for each of China’s main administrative divisions. Yunnan, Tibet and few other areas are relatively well covered; on a per capita basis, Tibet is reported on much extensively than the rest of China. The key provinces of Zhejiang and Jiangsu, however, receive scant notice.

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January 1, 2010, saw the emergence of the world’s largest free trade area in terms of population, linking China with the ten countries belonging to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Disagreements remain as to what to call the new organization. In the English-language press, the favored term is ACFTA, the ASEAN–China Free Trade Area; Chinese newspapers more often call it CAFTA, the China–ASEAN Free Trade Area. “CAFTA” is a potentially misleading term, as the same acronym was used for the Central American Free Trade Agreement. Officially, however, that CAFTA became CAFTA-DR in 2004, when the Dominican Republic joined the club.

Controversies that go deeper than nomenclature riddle the new free trade pact. On January 7, thousands of workers took to the streets of the Indonesian city of Bandung to demand a delay in implementation of the agreement. The protestors, the JakartaPost reported, “expressed fears that once the FTA came into effect it would trigger mass layoffs, as well as Indonesian products’ inability to compete on international markets.” Similar concerns have been expressed in Thailand and in other Southeast Asian countries concerned about competing with the Chinese manufacturing juggernaut. In the Philippines, highland vegetable farmers are worried about cheap Chinese carrots and cabbages. In response to such concerns, China announced on January 22 that it was willing to work with ASEAN countries to make adjustments to the agreement.

Enthusiasm for ACFTA, on the other hand, runs high in the relatively poor regions along the border between southern China and mainland Southeast Asia. The governments of Laos and the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region of China have been holding high-level talks to figure out how to take advantage of the free trade area. On January 7, direct flights began between Laos and Guangxi’s capital, Nanning. Officials in China’s Yunnan province are equally excited about the new economic possibilities. As the website GoKunming reports, the region will soon see “a vast network of highways and rail which will provide cities in Yunnan with cheap overland access to markets in Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore.” The article goes on to exclaim that, “difficult as it may be to imagine, Yunnan’s days as an economic and political backwater are officially over.”


Economic ties between southern China and the rugged lands of northern Southeast Asia have already been surging in recent years. Such developments have both positive and negative consequences, as was briefly explored in an earlier post on Burma’s United Wa State. Environmentally, the biggest issue is the massive dam-building projects undertaken on the Mekong, Salween, and other rivers that flow across the international boundary. But that is a subject for a later post.

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