This article addresses a televised accusation of corruption against China in the Pacific and seeks to interpret it as a weapon within a regional conflict for geopolitical influence, beyond the immediate interests of the island actors involved. The way these local interests regularly become invisible when they are drawn into the broader geopolitical debate is similar to the way earlier versions of this article have been framed by its detractors. Its previous drafts have been absorbed into the broader geopolitical debate and criticized with equal intensity by scholars holding radically different, and even diametrically opposed, positions, about China. Despite the argument being roughly the same, it was interpreted as if the attitude of the author towards “Chinese corruption” was either condescending or accusing, although it is neither. The argument this article presents is much more nuanced, calling for culturally sensitive understandings of corruption that do not fall under the rubric of cultural relativism. It is possible and even preferable to reject supposedly objective standards of corruption and argue instead that such concepts are culturally rooted, without necessarily justifying corrupt behavior based on cultural differences.
The broad range of reactions to this argument suggests, on the one hand, that there is an urgent need to discuss the topic. On the other hand, the way it was framed within the broader geopolitical debate as if it was instrumental to support one position or its opposite, suggests that discussing the topic in a balanced way is extremely difficult, perhaps even impossible. A positive response to being framed as representative of radically opposed views, and to a conundrum as twisted as that of being asked to justify claims that were never made in the first place, might be that of rephrasing the argument as clearly and unambiguously as possible. However, regardless of how successful such an attempt can be, there remains a risk of being held accountable for the socio-political consequences of an argument about “Chinese corruption”, precisely because of the aforementioned tendency to frame the argument within the broader geopolitical debate. This experience increases the relevance of colonial thinking to repackage viewpoints. A decolonial perspective is necessary to respond to it. The aim of this article is, thus, not to justify or attack any one geopolitical actor in particular, but rather to examine the moral and economic conditions that make the instrumental usage of evidence possible, with a focus on the topic of “Chinese corruption” in the Pacific islands.
The idea that relatively smaller island states are more vulnerable to corruption by larger external actors is one declination of the theoretical association between islandness and economic dependency (Baldacchino, 2008; Bertram & Watters, 1984, p. 88; Campbell, 2009; Hong, 2022, p. 130; Nimführ & Otto, 2020; Taglioni, 2010, p. 3). This association is part of a broader argument that posits an inverse proportion between country size and governmental challenges (Baker, 1992): the smaller country, the larger the challenge. This set of ideas and theoretical framework often results in the projection of preoccupations from regional/mainland actors (Grydehøj, 2016; Lowenthal, 2007) onto the local circumstances of individual islands.
As a consequence of this kind of projection, islands sometimes become the interstitial zones where confrontations between external actors occur (Mountz, 2013). Confrontations can escalate and take the form of military conflicts and occupations, as was the case in the Asia–Pacific chapter of World War II (G. M. White, 1991). In more peaceful times, islands can still become interstitial zones where the tension between external actors manifests itself. However, rather than being portrayed as playing an interstitial role, islands in the Pacific have increasingly been portrayed by policymakers, military strategists, and journalists as caught between emerging powers, such as China, and traditional powers like the United States (US), which deprives them of agency and neglects their active diplomatic role (Maggio, 2023).
Such geopolitical view of islands as ‘succumbing’ to one or another power has been challenged by scholars in island studies. For example, a study by Davis, Munger, and Legacy highlights how Pacific Islands simultaneously engage with multiple powers and their associated economic, political, and social influences, rather than passively accepting the presence and influence of China in the Pacific (Davis et al., 2020). Still, in the Pacific as much as in other parts of the world where China is increasingly present and influential, island states struggle to disengage their newly created Sino-Pacific relations from persistent colonial systems (Grydehøj et al., 2021). To retain and expand their post-colonial dominance, Western stakeholders employ “China threat” discourses about impending economic, environmental, demographic, and military calamities that all small countries ‘succumbing’ to China are doomed to suffer. It is within the production of such discourses that I categorize the statement that titles this article: “I’m sorry, but that’s bribery.”
Furthermore, it is in conversation with the above-mentioned literature that this article interprets the accusation of bribery addressed at Vanuatu Minister of Foreign Affairs Ralph John Regenvanu by 60 Minutes Australia reporter Tom Steinfort during an interview for the documentary “Is China taking over the South Pacific?” (60 Minutes Australia, 2018). The reporter was referring to the supposed support of the Vanuatu government for China in United Nations resolutions, hypothetically framed as reciprocation for an unprecedented influx of foreign capital. The accusation, however, seemed instrumental. It should be noted that the aim of this article is not to discuss the evidence base of the accusation. Of course, illicit economic behaviors should be duly investigated and severely sanctioned. However, in this article, I argue that rather than taking the reporter’s indignation at face value, in the “Chinese Pacific” these kind of “bribery” accusations are best interpreted as indicative of underlying tensions between disputants whose actual object of contention is not expressed in the accusation per se, but remains unaddressed in the background.
Taking this into account, this article seeks to answer the following question: what colonial premises are necessary to make a televised bribery accusation against a Pacific Island leader who engages in diplomatic relations with China? My argument is that we need to unpack key terms of the debate, historicize the events, take a relational perspective on Sino-Pacific diplomacy, and use this combination of insights from linguistic deconstruction, historiography, and a theoretical perspective to re-interpret the evidence and meaning of “bribery” in moral and economic terms. Hence, my argument proceeds along three stages.
First, I will present the theoretical framework of the moral economy as it is used in this article to critically interpret the evidence and meaning of “bribery.” In the same section, I will also give a working definition of bribery within the broader context in which the accusation was thrown, as opposed to the televised scene that was cut and sewn to serve a “China threat” narrative. Thus, I need to define the “China threat” discourse itself, to illustrate how it is used to absorb the meaning of new Sino-Pacific relations in the “Chinese Pacific.” In that sense, also a definition of this third term is necessary.
In the second part of the article, I will review some recent events in the history of Pacific Islands diplomacy to illustrate how they manifest the value of personal relationships between diplomatic actors. That will also illustrate how going beyond the realist conceptualization of geopolitics and towards a more relational understanding of international relations provides an opportunity to appreciate areas of congruence in Sino-Pacific conceptions of personal relationships. This section is intended to provide a more accurate description of Sino-Pacific diplomatic relations than that provided by the televised accusation of bribery.
In the last section, I will analyze this televised accusation of bribery within the theoretical framework of the moral economy of evidence. I will present the methodological challenges inherent in the measurement of global corruption and how these substantially limit the possibility of identifying corruption directly. That elucidates the connection between economic behaviors and values and between emotions and categorizations, such as accusations of corruption.
The moral economy of evidence
When the reporter said “I’m sorry, but that’s bribery,” Ralph John Regenvanu swiftly responded: “Maybe. That’s diplomacy. Australia gives a lot of money and expects us to vote for them in certain things and we do, I mean. This is the give-and-take of international diplomacy.” This exchange of perspectives on economic behaviors deemed to be immoral and/or pragmatic exemplifies how the term “moral economy” will be used in this article.
The term “moral economy” has already been applied to the analysis of corruption, particularly in Africa by Olivier de Sardan (1999). However, its genealogy is global and originates in studies of societies that are distant in both time and space. The expression “moral economy” was first used by Thompson to illustrate the reasons behind the violent reactions of the populace to the rising price of bread in eighteenth-century England (Thompson, 1971). Causes such as decreasing supplies of wheat and rising demand were too distant and abstract for ordinary peasants who were used to understanding the legitimacy of pricing mechanisms as resting on values such as communal life, proximity, hospitality, generosity, and reciprocity.
The introduction of a foreign pricing mechanism based on market values was part of a more general process that Polanyi termed the “great transformation,” a fundamental shift from understanding one’s value as coextensive with social standing to understanding one’s value as based on individual interests (Polanyi, 1944). However, the debate that this conceptualization elicited suggested that no straightforward subdivision between traditional and modern values can be drawn in any society in particular, for acts of self-interested market valuation can be observed in so-called traditional societies too, as much as a range of not-strictly economic values motivates economic behavior in the modern West (Graeber, 2001; Munn, 1992).
Hence, rather than being used as an overarching concept to include the extreme diversity of economic behaviors and their rationale, the term has been mostly used in analytical processes in which particular attention was paid to the moral legitimacy of economic acts. Scott famously imported the term from eighteenth-century England to modern-day Indonesia, along with the seeming assumption that such a thing as an a-moral economy might exist, as opposed to an economy saturated in not-strictly-economic values (Scott, 1977). This is not the perspective from which the swift exchange of views reported above is analyzed in this article.
I argue instead that the debate about the quality of Sino-Pacific relations is best understood as a confrontation between different moral economies that produce different valuations of personal relationships as socio-cultural mechanisms that turn high-risk exchanges into self-implementing contracts. Using the concept of moral economy in this way perhaps resembles the usage illustrated by Daston in her work about the moral economy of evidence and precision measurement (Daston, 1995), which will be particularly useful toward the end of the article. Indeed, the idea that evidence could be identified, isolated, and aligned in such a way as to demonstrate that Sino-Pacific relationships are inherently and inevitably corrupt stands in opposition to a view of corruption as a universal human phenomenon whose detection “depends in essential ways upon highly specific constellations of emotions and values,” for “the stability and integrity of a moral economy derives from its ties to activities, such as precision measurement or collaborative empiricism, which anchor and entrench but do not determine it” (Daston, 1995, pp. 3–4).
Following Daston’s conceptualization, it seems that accurate description is not the only motivation that influences how values are used to regulate the economy of evidence. Intrinsic to the investigative endeavor is the moral economy of choosing the focus of the investigation, the sifting of evidence, and the standards of explanation. These are all actions that concretize the potential values held by self-disciplining subjects that are only partially conscious, if at all, of their interest in sorting evidence according to an agenda. To illustrate why this is the case, we need to re-contextualize the accusation of “bribery,” starting with a deconstruction of its meaning.
Definitions: “Bribery” as “China threat” in the “Chinese Pacific”
“Bribery” is a potentially dangerous term in the “Chinese Pacific” chapter of the “China threat” debate. In the current state of such debate, this term is not used as a precise heuristic tool. To illustrate that, the terms “China threat,” “Chinese Pacific,” and “Bribery” will be defined, from the most to the least encompassing.
“China threat”: Epistemic framing and decolonial critique
The term “China threat” refers to the idea that China’s rise as a global power poses a threat to other countries. The concept encompasses concerns about military power, economic influence, and territorial ambitions. It is often used to describe China’s perceived attempts to gain greater influence in the regions where other superpowers such as the US have been playing a historical role of presence and influence.
It appears that some of the first “China threat” narratives were identified by Chinese scholars such as Zhang Mingming (2003) as emerging in post-Cold War Japan, where China was already seen as a destabilizing actor in Asian geopolitics. In the US, academic attention has focused on China’s threat to US interests (Bernstein & Munro, 1997; Munro, 1992; Roy, 1996) since at least “the late 1980s, primarily concerned with national security and trade imbalances, and more recently in Australia, where the debate has centered on the corrupting influence of Chinese money in domestic politics” (Rogelja & Tsimonis, 2020, p. 103).
This particular declination of the “China threat” discourse as applied to corruption in the Pacific Islands is constructed along with other concerns for the environment, economy, and military security (Smith & Wesley-Smith, 2021). However, depicting China as seeking to disrupt the governance of Pacific Islands countries seems to ignore that the logical consequence of such an approach would likely be detrimental to China’s own investments and strategic interests in the region. As Powles argued, “Only the most hardened adherent to the darkest ‘China threat’ scenarios would believe that China could see any benefit in the national and regional instability that bad governance can bring” (Powles, 2007, p. 11). To challenge the bias in the perception of Chinese operations in the region and examine the “China threat” discourse more critically, a different perspective on China’s involvement in the Pacific should be adopted.
Viewed through this lens, portraying China as a threat can be seen as colonialist, i.e. as primarily driven by the anxiety that China’s expanding presence and impact in the Pacific region is undermining the post-colonial system. To comprehend knowledge that exists beyond the boundaries of colonial thinking, it is imperative to decolonize the methodology employed to obtain such knowledge. To envision a methodology that achieves this, I drew inspiration from the recent work published by Grydehøj et al. (2021) on decolonial thinking. Their study examines the inclination to label as a “China threat” occurrences that may not fit within this classification.
Following their viewpoint, this article proposes that the epistemological configuration of the terms of the discussion, founded on colonial presuppositions, can be disputed by engaging in a sincere and precise reflection that endeavors to locate our scholarship beyond the colonial framework and in line with the views of Pacific communities. While the post-colonial history of ethnomethodology cautions us about the limitations of accounting for observational biases, allowing the “China threat” discourse to override the diversity of Pacific perspectives with its predetermined classifications poses a significantly more concerning ethical challenge.
It cannot be assumed that scholars are free from epistemological tendencies that reinforce hegemonic power structures. Subtle colonial biases can unconsciously shape what is considered acceptable knowledge and what is not (Escobar & Restrepo, 2010). Therefore, if indigenous perspectives are to be included in research on Sino-Pacific relations, a conscious effort must be made to distance oneself from the “China threat” framework. This can be achieved by focusing on the intersection of power dynamics, knowledge production processes, and the dissemination of ideas. By doing so, attention can be redirected to how China’s presence and impact in the modern Pacific are enmeshed in both new and old forms of colonial domination propagated by external narratives.
While scholars may strive to employ epistemological methods that allow them to access knowledge generated by indigenous peoples in subaltern positions (Sarker, 2015), this alone is not sufficient to ensure that their perspectives are fully acknowledged and integrated in a participatory way to develop more accurate conceptualizations. It is important to treat the emic perspective with genuine respect, but this does not necessarily result in a re-evaluation of what is deemed thinkable. The opposite may be true: giving equal weight to indigenous perspectives on China in the Pacific and utilizing them to make theoretical contributions to current geopolitical discussions requires first freeing our knowledge production processes from the professional constraints of “thinking the unthinkable.”
The initial step towards this goal involves interrogating the epistemological standpoint that underlies the growing body of journalistic and popular materials focused on the question of who is dominating the Pacific and who is being dominated (Bentouhami-Molino, 2017; Grosfoguel, 2007). There needs to be a sincere academic curiosity in understanding how and why knowledge produced outside the purview of indigenous peoples is employed to discredit alternative viewpoints and to steer public opinion towards existing normative frameworks.
In essence, this might sound like a reinvention of the anthropological wheel, for anthropology has always relied on questioning the conditions under which it generates knowledge. While scholars who recognize the imperative of critically examining the epistemological standpoint from which we approach the Sinicization of the Pacific may be expected to explicitly detail their reflexive efforts, that is not a requirement. What is crucial is to reject the simplistic and unsophisticated binary between being either “pro-China” or “anti-China.” This is necessary to demonstrate how decolonial methodologies can operate effectively in preventing colonial frameworks of domination from being imposed on the production of knowledge.
In summary, adopting a decolonial methodology entails relinquishing the premise that China poses a threat, centering on the agency of Pacific Islanders and their capacity to make autonomous decisions, and regarding the emerging Sino-Pacific relations as a distinctive set of relationships in their own right.
Rejecting the presumption that China poses a threat involves recognizing its burgeoning role and impact in the Pacific region, while also giving equal persuasive weight to the evidence indicating that, relative to other parts of the world, China’s interest in the region is not particularly intense. For instance, in terms of trade, the Pacific Islands only account for 0.12% of China’s total global trade volume. Additionally, conjectures regarding interests beyond commerce, such as geopolitical ones, do not significantly alter the essence of this counterargument. Various scholars have suggested that China’s soft power in the region is limited (Herr, 2019; Smith, 2016; Wesley-Smith and Smith, 2021, p. 21). Furthermore, when it comes to physical presence, that is, the actual number of Chinese individuals residing in the region, the figure is comparatively insignificant, despite recent increases (the Chinese migrant population comprises just 1% of the total population). It is worth noting that these quantitative data do not imply that China’s presence or influence is nonexistent or is inconsequential; rather, they underscore the potential for alternative arguments that disregard the “China threat” narrative in favor of more intricate and nuanced connections among data sourced from various disciplines. Valuing data of this kind depends on centering academic attention on the agency of Pacific Islanders rather than the preoccupations of external actors.
Focusing on the agency of Pacific Islanders means recognizing their independent identities and welcoming their self-perception in the analytical process, as well as on the political level. As Terence Wesley-Smith and Graeme Smith note in the Introduction to The China Alternative, “Despite China’s extensive trade, aid, and investment profile in the region, it is unclear how much influence Beijing has on decision-making in Pacific Island capitals. It is difficult to find examples where China caused Island leaders to take actions they would not have taken otherwise or that were contrary to their expressed interests” (Smith & Wesley-Smith, 2021, p. 20). This suggests that independent agency plays a significant role and should be analyzed accordingly, including actions such as establishing and engaging in new relationships with Chinese actors. This is necessary if we are to treat Sino-Pacific relations in their own right.
The “China threat” debate constructs Sino-Pacific relationships as essentially reliant on the rivalry between China and post-colonial actors in the region. It is instead important to establish a framework that reflects new power dynamics, which are affected by but also distinct from the interests of other foreign powers, such as the US. This does not imply that the US-China competition will not impact Sino-Pacific relations. As Terence Wesley-Smith observes, “it has become a common practice for US officials and commentators to describe the escalating US-China competition as ‘nothing less than a new cold war,’ even though their understanding of what this entails differs” (Kaplan, 2019, p. 2; Tarabay, 2019; Wesley-Smith, 2021, p. 73; H. White, 2018). Walt goes as far as saying that the US-China power struggle “will be the most significant characteristic of global politics for at least the next ten years and probably beyond” (Walt, 2018, p. 3, in Smith & Wesley-Smith, 2021, p. 73). Therefore, this third point involves treating Sino-Pacific relations as capable of evolving independently, within a framework that acknowledges the West as just one of many actors rather than the center of the world.
To put into practice these principles of decolonial methodology to study new Sino-Pacific relations, it is necessary to collect indigenous perspectives through ethnographic fieldwork and bring them to bear theoretical value on major issues, such as corruption. The analytical process should be bottom-up, starting from direct observations and interviews, which would then be processed with qualitative methods such as thematic analysis and grounded theory. In this article, I contextualize the usage of the term “bribery” by an Australian journalist within the context of an interview with an indigenous Pacific scholar and diplomat, and situate it into the international debate about the “Chinese Pacific.”
The “Chinese Pacific”: anticipatory geographies and representation
Recently, after the US imperial interests in the Pacific Ocean resulted in labeling the area as an “American Lake,” the Pentagon warned that it might already be in the process of becoming a “Chinese Lake” (DeLoughrey, 2020, p. 29). Using the term “lake” truly suggests an imperial perspective, as if the largest ocean on Earth can still be regarded as relatively small. “Chinese Pacific” is perhaps more appropriate, however, Paul D’Arcy’s innovative approach to studying the Chinese presence and influence in the Pacific involves the use of the term “Chinese Pacifics,” which pluralizes both Chinese and Pacific actors (D’Arcy, 2014). His expression reflects the diverse meanings attributed to these categories, including a range of cultural characteristics. In contrast, the singular expression “The Chinese Pacific” is often used in debates, despite lacking the plurality of meaning present in D’Arcy’s usage (D’Arcy, 2007). Such a term can simplify and stereotype the diversity of socio-cultural life into convenient labels, whether to create anticipatory geographies or to stir up alarm in the Asia-Pacific region.
In social sciences, the terms used in the “China threat” discourse in the Pacific condense Western anxieties into a distinct and identifiable narrative, that of a Pacific chapter in China’s grand strategy for world domination (Maggio, 2021). Alarmed commentators have been weaving pieces of evidence together in an attempt to prove the increasing loss of sovereignty of the Pacific to China, with particular preoccupations with trade, aid, diplomacy, and military power. China’s penetration in the Pacific is often described with orientalizing references to morally problematic tactics, such as “Sun Tzu’s strategy of deception to win without waging war” (Haq, 2022). Although it has been suggested that each set of issues might be mostly based on exaggerated preoccupations rather than concrete dangers (Van Grieken & Kantorowicz, 2021), the increasing presence and influence of China in the Pacific remain an issue.
One of the main factors recurrently presented to explain the penetration of China in the Pacific is the retreat of the US from the region (Haq, 2022) as if the presence and influence of China and the US were at once incompatible and yet inevitable. It has already been argued that “influence in the island Pacific is not a zero-sum game between foreign powers vying for hegemony” (Davis et al., 2020). Indeed, such kind of explanation only belongs to commentators who focus on issues of hegemony, military strategy, and geopolitics, who only represent a small fraction of the broad range of perspectives from which different explanations can be elaborated. Since the recent shift in American strategic interests in the region, there has been a lack of diversity in disciplinary approaches to studying the increasing Chinese presence, leading to the “disciplinary narrowness” of existing literature (D’Arcy, 2014). As D’Arcy noted, “the disciplinary and temporal narrowness of most recent studies… is partly because the rapid rise of Chinese influence in the Island Pacific was seen to coincide with a declining presence of the USA. Consequently, scholars, primarily from international relations and strategic studies, focused on great power rivalry rather than the Pacific Islands themselves” (D’Arcy, 2014, p. 397). Terms such as “Chinese Pacific” have been used mainly to serve a diversity of purposes in these fields, rather than to give theoretical value to indigenous statements or to account for the diversity of their perspectives.
However, while the term “Chinese Pacific” implies a narrow focus on the perceived threat of China’s influence, it is also an inadequate and unimaginative category. The very notion of a “Chinese Pacific” is unthinkable for reasons that are all too familiar to scholars of colonial and post-colonial relations. Rather than recognizing the Pacific’s ethnolinguistic, historical, and geographical diversity, which is what makes D’Arcy’s concept of Chinese Pacifics plural and meaningful, the unthinkability of the “Chinese Pacific” stems from a fundamental resistance to the idea that the region could chart an entirely new path, free from the constraints of colonial history and Western approval.
The possibility of envisioning an alternative direction for the Pacific is a recent development, as significant changes in leadership approaches to external influences in the region have occurred in recent years (Wesley-Smith, 2021, p. 71). This has prompted Fry and Tarte to describe a “new Pacific diplomacy” that goes beyond the diplomatic ramifications of increased Chinese presence and influence but recognizes their significance in a series of extraordinary circumstances in Asia-Pacific history that have brought new media attention to the region (Fry & Tarte, 2016). While the narrative framing the Pacific as a territory to be won or lost by competing external powers has drawn attention to China as a primary competitor, this view is not necessarily alarmist. Chinese, along with Europeans, have been the major migrants and colonizers of the Pacific Basin in modern times. Hence, it appears that the fear of ‘losing the Pacific to China’ is not a just concern of the old colonial powers, but also a reflection of colonial history and a projection onto China of colonial attitudes towards Pacific Islanders (Pan, 2004).
That is a difficult analogy to draw, for the Chinese presence and influence in the Pacific bears little if any resemblance with the colonial enterprise. Still, the preoccupation is perhaps warranted, for China is indeed becoming a valid alternative to the current geopolitical order, as the recent book The China Alternative suggests with its bold and provocative title (Smith & Wesley-Smith, 2021). As Pacific Islanders and Chinese actors negotiate their new relationships in the region, it has become necessary to consider the need for a new categorical space to accommodate an increasingly Sinicized Pacific. The book’s title reflects one possible outcome of this process, but it also prompts a deeper examination of our language and epistemology.
In this context, the term “bribery” deserves particular attention because it sheds light on the moral economy of China’s method of penetration as perceived by those excluded, or at least made peripheral, from the new Sino-Pacific relations.
“Bribery” is the third term whose application in the Chinese Pacific is unpacked in this article. Bribery is a form of corruption. Corruption is an economic behavior that has been present in every society in every time, albeit its identification remains problematic. In this article, the term corruption is used in a loose and broad sense, for the events relatable to the usage of the term in the case under analysis are not clear.
Traditionally, it is possible to classify phenomena of corruption into two main categories: coercive and collusive corruption. Illicit transactions in which generated rents are shared by the actors fall into the category of collusive corruption. On the other hand, forced acts of giving money to access a service otherwise publicly available are grouped as coercive corruption (Sequeira & Djankov, 2008). Corruption could also be split into petty and grand corruption. The former is “the everyday, street-level type of corruption that involves small payments, speed money, and tips to people low in the hierarchy” (Lambsdorff et al., 2004, p. 5). The latter takes place at the top levels of the public sphere and is defined as such not necessarily for the amount of money involved, but mostly because it happens in the same place where public policies are formulated.
In modern times, the phenomenon of corruption derives from the nature of democratic states themselves: citizens delegate the power to other citizens who are charged with the tasks of public administration, but often the latter have other interests than those of collective benefit. It is from this conflict of interest that corruption arises. Or, at least this is what can be understood from the definition of corruption conceived by the World Bank: the abuse of public office for private gain (World Bank, 1999). The World Bank explicitly stated that this definition does not include corruption in the private sector since this is not the bank’s main concern.
The Asian Development Bank opted for a more general definition: “Corruption involves behavior on the part of officials in the public and private sectors, in which they improperly and unlawfully enrich themselves and/or those close to them, or induce others to do so, by misusing the position in which they are placed” (Asian Development Bank, 1998). This definition, albeit broader, restricts corruption to illegal activities. It has been shown that corruption can coexist with informal norms of transaction without being necessarily considered against the rules. In the US, for instance, it is not against the law to finance political parties with a large amount of money during electoral campaigns. This poses obvious problems in tracing the boundary between lobbyism and corruption (Søreide, 2005). A definition of corruption that is supposed to be used in a global context must therefore take into account how people perceive corrupt behaviors according to their cultural background.
Transparency International (TI) operationally defines as “the abuse of entrusted power for private gain” (TI, 2019). That seems to be appropriate since it acknowledges the cultural differences in conceiving corruption and encompasses both the private and the public sectors. This definition thus sets cultural prejudices apart and epitomizes one crucial lesson learned in years of Global Corruption Reports: detecting corruption is possible if the people affected perceive it in the same terms as those who try to measure its levels. In other words, identifying corruption is only possible if everyone shares the same notion of entrusted power and recognition of when it is abused.
It follows that different definitions of corruption can be formulated for different reasons. Philosophically, a general or even universal definition of corruption is possible, but such a definition might not be as conducive to fighting corruption as a definition of corruption that takes cultural differences into account. The problem is real in that often-corrupt behaviors, as Harris argues, tend to be understood as if they were coextensive with a general definition of corruption that is coined in a different context from that in which they occur (Harris, 2020). Interestingly, Harris argues that it is precisely the failure to recognize contextual aspects that made the dominant approach to fighting global corruption mostly unsuccessful. To provide evidence for her argument, Harris delves into the development of the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC) as the origin of the global anti-corruption consensus and then contextualizes its application in the case of Papua New Guinea (PNG). The primary takeaway from Harris’ work, and that which is most relevant for the argument presented in this article, is that promoting a top-down approach to fighting corruption is not advisable, in the Pacific or elsewhere. Harris suggests, instead, that a way to enhance the global anti-corruption regime would be to strengthen local engagement with non-local, external ideas of corruption, such as those propounded in the UNCAC, to adjust the latter to specific local circumstances. Needless to say, this is not an approach that seems compatible with forthrightly accusing your interlocutor of “bribery.”
Sino-Pacific diplomatic relations in the Pacific
The value of personal relationships in Pacific diplomacy
The debates addressing China’s growing presence and influence include discussions about the proper way to conduct diplomatic work in the Asia-Pacific region. These, in turn, overlap with another set of debates regarding the values that underpin diplomatic relations among Pacific Island States. The importance of personal relationships is one of these values.
The significance of this value was brought to the forefront by the series of events leading to the so-called “Micronexit” (Köllner, 2021). Micronexit is a term that is commonly used to refer to the withdrawal of Micronesian States from the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) (Republic of Nauru, 2021). The PIF is an important organization in the region that promotes cooperation among Pacific Ocean countries and territories (Kabutaulaka, 2021). The casus belli for the withdrawal was the election of Henry Puna, a former Cook Islands PM, as the new Secretary General (Angelo & Theys, 2022). This decision violated a “gentlemen’s agreement” between members of the PIF regarding a sub-regional rotation system where a Polynesian was elected after a Melanesian, and a Micronesian was expected to be elected this time (Schleich, 2021). Later, after a heated debate among the stakeholders, the decision to withdraw from the PIF was suspended (Reuters, 2022). Nonetheless, as Puas stated in a recent review of the implications of this rupture, “the future of the PIF is uncertain, regardless of the current crisis’s outcome” (Puas, 2022). The fracture has had several significant consequences, particularly regarding the coordinated actions of the states in international policy discussions (Herr, 2022). For the sake of the argument presented in this article, though, the root cause of why the crisis came about in the first place matters more than the immediate reason for the incident.
Some analysts proposed that the breakdown of the PIF may be attributed to the fragility and fragmentation of personal relationships between Pacific Island leaders that have arguably been undermined by the pandemic-related restrictions on movement. As Herr wrote “There is an argument that this PIF crisis could be laid at the door of the COVID-19 pandemic. Certainly, the pandemic has had an outsized influence on the personal cohesiveness of the PIF leadership” (Herr, 2022, p. 28), although that is arguably one factor among others. However, it was suggested that sustaining and nourishing this kind of relationship through platforms like Zoom is not possible, at least not to the same degree (Lyons, 2021). Before the pandemic, personal relationships between the parties facilitated the transformation of high-risk exchanges, such as the voting mechanism of the PIF, into self-implementing contracts. During the pandemic, that was no longer the case.
Holding the value of personal relationships so dear as to turn them into necessary conditions for the smooth implementation of diplomatic programs is, thus, a feature of Pacific Island diplomacy so important that only cataclysmic events such as the spread of COVID-19 could undermine. If violated, this value might result in the very breakdown of Pacific diplomacy itself, which is what happened indeed. However, if respected, and even fostered, the value of personal relationships might constitute a key ingredient for nourishing and maintaining diplomatic relations with and among Pacific Islands states.
The importance of personal relationships in international relations in the Pacific, though not codified, plays a role as important as if it was codified. That is perhaps best understood as an international extension of the traditional values of village life, such as hospitality, generosity, and reciprocity. These reach far into modern political systems throughout the Pacific but do not change substantially. At the provincial and national level, as many scholars indicate, political leaders are expected to provide local citizens with financial or material contributions at events such as weddings, housewarmings, birthdays, and funerals in exchange for political support (Hassall, 2019; Iati, 2016, p. 284; Veenendaal, 2016, p. 233; Veenendaal & Corbett, 2020).
An inevitable consequence of this overlap between local customs and democratic practices is that the line between political impropriety and adherence to traditional values blurs (Hassall, 2019; Huffer, 2005; Larmour, 2012; Levine, 2016). Levine notes that such “exchange of political support for various tangible benefits between citizens and politicians is commonly identified as ‘clientelism’ in other parts of the world” (Levine, 2016, p. 233), however, it is not necessary to look that far. The very same people who would deem such acts as legitimate in one context might as well condemn them in another. That is the case in the Pacific too. Levine himself reported that the Chief Justice of Cook Islands, in his judgment on one electoral petition against allegations of bribery, said “perhaps it is time that there was a cross-party agreement about how birthday gifts, kaikai [food and drink] and other culture practices are to be regarded during the course of an election” (Levine, 2016, p. 54). The line between gift and bribery is, thus, not so neat, and where exactly to draw that line is a subject of debate, both nationally and internationally (Graycar & Jancsics, 2017).
As the analysis moves to the international level, still, the fundamental values of hospitality, generosity, and reciprocity still apply. For example, in the General Assembly of the UN, Palau and the US tend to vote in agreement over 95% of the time (Veenendaal, 2016). According to Veenendaal, that signals a close alignment with US foreign policy. It is no mystery that Palau’s economy receives substantial support from the US (US Department of State, 2022). Scholars sometimes use expressions such as “Checkbook diplomacy” (Lin, 2010; Roy, 2019; Veenendaal, 2017) or “patron-client linkages” (Levine, 2016, p. 236) to describe this kind of relationships between small nations and more powerful nations involving a quid pro quo of political support in exchange for material compensation.
If we were to conclude that these exchanges are solely manipulative tactics used to achieve profit or other desired goals, we might fail to grasp the fundamental reason for their effectiveness. The need to reciprocate can only be instantiated by a genuine gift (Derrida, 1991). In a personal relationship, the primary goal of subsequent exchanges is to cultivate trust. Trust arises from repeated exchanges of gifts and favors and serves as a resource for future problem-solving over extended periods of time (Smart, 1993). When, instead, the exchange is not meant to establish and/or nourish relationships but to achieve immediate objectives, the form of the gift may be followed, but its content is more like a bribe than a genuine gift exchange (Graycar & Jancsics, 2017). If the receiver perceives this manipulation, they may refuse or devalue the presentation, rendering the manipulation unsuccessful (Larmour, 2012). Manipulation and exploitation of gift exchanges are possible, but only feasible because of the prior existence of gift exchange forms that prioritize building trust over immediate instrumental objectives. If all partners attempt to exploit the form of gift exchange in this instrumental fashion, their attempts will inevitably fail because trust will be undermined. Be it individuals from the same village, province, nation, or diplomats from different countries, if the parties approached their relationships in this manner, trust could not develop. It is therefore incorrect to categorize relationship-building exchanges solely as manipulative tactics. Although there might be evidence that these exchanges are best described as bribes made possible by exploitative relations, in the absence of direct evidence such description is best interpreted as fundamentally political, i.e. instrumental within a debate. If, however, we take a decolonial perspective, the political position from which this interpretation is operationalized does not benefit colonial or post-colonial actors. Rather, it benefits an appreciation of the everyday geopolitics of Sino-Pacific relationships that seeks to escape colonial framing.
Relationships as areas of congruence in everyday geopolitics
The value of personal relationships in Pacific diplomacy and the value of relationships in Chinese international relations, despite the inevitable differences that might be highlighted, converge in some respects. For one, Chinese guanxi is established and nurtured as long as “all participating parties… have an interest in long-term transaction relationships” (Schramm & Taube, 2005, pp. 186–187). This is what Crocombe would define as an “area of congruence.” In his succinct yet inspiring reflection on the congruence of Chinese and Pacific values, he wrote:
Values are imprecise, they differ for every person and they vary over time, but there are important differences between some dominant values of the key actors in the Islands who are guided by Western, Northeast Asian and Pacific Islands values. […] Some values are more congruent between Chinese and Islanders than with Europeans. For example the tendencies to avoid social conflict and open criticism, to seek consensus rather than majority rule, to accept authority and hierarchy, to give high priority to personal relations, are generally stronger with Chinese and Islanders than with Europeans. China gives much more attention to personal relations with Pacific Islands political leaders (or those from anywhere) than do Western nations. (Crocombe, 2010, p. 42)
Crocombe’s reasoning is not isolated. The concept of guanxi has been frequently characterized in stark opposition to the Western model of human relationships regulated by legal individual rights (Bell, 2000). Rather than freely negotiated contractual obligations that take place relatively swiftly between juridical individuals in short-term negotiations, guanxi is based on traditional, embedded, and tacit, mutual obligations between friends, relatives, and quasi-relatives who assume that the relationship is worth a substantial investment of their resources because the relatively higher number of transactions in the long term can be reasonably expected to decrease the average cost of each transaction. This kind of economic calculation might not be a necessary prerequisite for guanxi to develop, however, the benefits are usually a consequence of it.
The importance of personal relationships in the diplomatic context is such that one of the most important Chinese schools of international relations is entirely predicated on the concept of guanxi (Grydehøj & Su, 2022, p. 34). Its founder, Qin Yaqing posited that our perceptions of choice and strategic activity are influenced by the fact that all social actors, including political entities, are interdependent, for the world itself is comprised of a network of relationships (Qin, 2016). Influenced by Fei Xiaotong’s classic scholarship (Fei, 1992), Qin conceptualized interests, identities, and powers as shaped by the relationships between actors, as opposed to a theory that posits the source of these values as fundamentally located within the existential core of the individual. Such a framework, which conceives of coexistence and existence as interdependent and mutually constructed, rather than one preceding or negating the other, has important implications for international relations theory.
For one, Cao argues that it is from personal relations between actors that trust is produced in international relations (Cao, 2010, in Grydehøj & Su, 2022, p. 34). Once trust is established at the personal level, its effects move up, down, and through the institutional structure. This guanxi theory of international relations does not view political actors as separate entities engaged in an existential struggle where competing interests can be achieved through negotiations and compromises, but instead regards them as interdependent and mutually reinforcing participants. It is indeed a theory that places special emphasis on reciprocity, for relationships are characterized by mutual benefit between actors who raise themselves by aiding others.
Much can be said regarding the possible juxtaposition, combination, or overlap between Western and Chinese theories of international relations. Kavalski focused on this guanxi theory of international relations to theorize ethical-political issues in world affairs (Kavalski, 2017). As Grydehøj and Su noted, one of the fundamental questions that have been raised regarding Qin’s guanxi theory is: “Have Western structural realism, neoliberal institutionalism, and structural constructivism truly ignored interstate relations?” (Grydehøj & Su, 2022, p. 35). I think it is possible, for one might consider guanxi theory as an invalid principle to regulate human relationships in international diplomacy if one assumes that such regulations must only take the legal form of jurisdictional institutions. In other words, there must be a refusal against the personal character of these relationships. In their stead, for the schools of thought just mentioned, there has to be another mechanism: a kind of trustless, impersonal, and yet singular accountability.
This kind of singular accountability is compatible with the Western institutions that base their jurisdictional foundations on the Christian principle of the autonomy of the individual (Hamilton, 1994, p. 198). In contrast, as Hamilton put it, Chinese institutions rest more on normative social relationships than on jurisdictional principles. Even more, they rest on the assumption that no individual is entirely autonomous; a notion that, coincidently, is relatable to the concept of dividual conceptualized by Strathern to describe Melanesian personhood (Strathern, 1988). This might be considered as both reinforcing and extending Crocombe’s theory of areas of congruence.
From a perspective that conjugates the concept of individual personhood and the relational theory of international relations it is possible to see the breakdown of the PIF, the increasing presence and influence of China in the Pacific, and the increasingly peripheral role of the ex-colonies as manifestations of, on the one hand, convergence towards the appreciation of more normative social relationships and, on the other, relative disregard for more jurisdictional institutions. The former, simply put, ensure more lasting and trustworthy benefits than the latter, from both a Chinese and a Pacific perspective. This is one way in which it is possible to re-think the terms of the debate regarding the quality and content of diplomatic relations between international actors in the Pacific, as opposed to the way manifested by a televised accusation of “bribery.”
The moral economy of a televised accusation of bribery
In this section, the televised accusation of bribery is analyzed from the perspective of the moral economy of evidence presented in the first section. This analysis illustrates the challenges of measuring corruption and suggests that the vast room for subjective interpretations of corruption measurements easily lends itself to a categorization of Sino-Pacific diplomatic relations as corrupt. In other words, the objective limitations of corruption measurement tools have been, in this case, incorrectly overcome through a subscription to the perception of Chinese culture as relatively accepting of corrupt practices. This perception is corroborated by the impression that corruption in China is not sanctioned as severely as elsewhere. Eventually, the perception of Chinese culture as relatively accepting of corrupt practices and the impression that corruption in China is not sanctioned has been combined with the theoretical association between islandness, economic dependency, and governmental challenges in the context of a “China threat” narrative in the Pacific.
To assess whether an institution is affected by corruption or is prepared to impede it, it is necessary to have a set of measurement tools adequately designed to address this specific aspect of governance. Inevitably, the construction of a measurement tool is affected by the limitations of the international consensus on the meaning of corruption, such as the above-mentioned UNCAC approach (Harris, 2020). In any case, it is impossible to deliver a precise and complete measure of the phenomenon. This has been an ongoing problem since the first efforts to measure corruption in the 1970s (Heller, 2008, p. 2). The first systems of measurement used ‘aseptic’ econometric indicators and were characterized by a fundamental lack of standardized methodology of research (Urra, 2007, p. 2). This is to say that measurement problems are not something that needs to be discovered.
To obviate, rather than resolve this problem, “aggregated indicators” (Kaufmann et al., 2009) have been developed. This has been the basis of the international corruption ranking system since the 1990s. These composite indicators based on a systematic and standardized method of data collection are mainly used by the anti-corruption community to raise awareness of the negative impacts of corruption and mal-governance. The most important indicators recognized worldwide are the Corruption Perception Index (CPI) by TI and the Worldwide Governance Indicators by the World Bank. Although they are not perfect, the main strength of these indices is the combination of various data sources used to verify the information. The aggregation of indicators from multiple sources is considered a viable solution to limit the measurement error of individual tools. “The CPI requires a minimum of three sources for a country to be included. This is one of the CPI’s undoubted strengths,” argues Galtung (2005, p. 3). As already mentioned, the CPI depends on perception-based data, mainly gathered from third-party surveys. Thus, it is evident that these kinds of indicators do not measure corruption directly, but use what de Maria calls “epiphenomenal occurrences” (de Maria, 2008, p. 6) or secondary manifestations of the phenomenon. Theoretically, the final analysis should reach global coverage (Heller, 2008, p. 3) and create a worldwide classification from the least to the most corrupt country. However, the theoretical and methodological limitations of these tools leave much room for interpretation. A closer look reveals that these limitations might be rather severe.
One of the major measurement problems to be faced is related to reliability. According to Søreide, corruption indices are too dependent on personal perceptions (Søreide, 2005, p. 5). The data collection system does not check whether responses result from personal experience, exogenous factors (such as economic trends), impressions, or rumors (de Maria, 2008). The imperfection of these proxy indicators based on perception criteria makes it impossible to prevent the high margin of error that could occur, even if the mixture of interconnected data support one another (Kaufmann & Kraay, 2007). These data are always dependent on several factors such as past statistics of the same indicators or personal interests (Arndt & Oman, 2008). Furthermore, reliability is also compromised by what Johnston calls “culture shock” (Johnston, 2000, p. 13). Outsiders studying different contexts face linguistic barriers, and people of different cultural backgrounds may have different perceptions of what constitutes corruption in an unfamiliar context, as well as a different interpretation of survey questions. Furthermore, critics often voice that such indices are not only prone to ‘Western’ bias but also to ‘business’ bias. The former is because the CPI is assessed by foreigners, and the latter is caused by the nature of agencies assessing corruption. Being mainly business focused, they are likely to overestimate the level of corruption “if it poses a risk to their business interests or if it is a factor in political volatility” (Galtung, 2005, p. 10). Finally, the relation between numbers on the ranking is usually unknown and not based on fixed categories. The translation of perception-based information into numerical results is often not clear and transparent. Consequently, the challenge to reading these aggregated indices is also that some data are taken from private polling companies. Public scrutiny is often impossible because data are confidential and accessible only to the client (de Maria, 2008). All this makes the measurements and their results hard to ‘unpack.’
In an attempt to overcome the methodological limitations of these tools, analysts sought to isolate the opposite of corruption, i.e. “good governance” (Heller, 2008, p. 3). Following the principle that “if corruption can happen, it will happen,” good governance criteria are used to identify where corruption is more or less likely to occur. According to this methodology, good governance reduces conflicts of interest and discretional spaces to a minimum, which are considered the basic preconditions for corruption to take place. Following the guidelines of the World Bank (1999), the concept of good governance came, in this context, to be associated with transparency. Transparency includes all the measures likely to ensure public knowledge of all the processes involved in the use of entrusted power, and it is an important element in assuring accountability. The opposite of corruption is, therefore, a set of concepts–transparency, accountability, integrity–which can be used to strengthen and maintain good governance. The construction of this methodology seems to indicate that the worldwide diversity of corruption has been largely recognized.
However, there are limitations to this method too. For example, among the most internationally recognized “good governance” measurement tools are the Global Integrity Index, the Ibrahim Good Governance Index, and TI’s National Integrity System. Their focus is on legislation systems, institutional structures, and political interferences. This means that anti-corruption measurements could provide useful information on the effectiveness of anti-corruption efforts, but do not provide data regarding the particular weaknesses of a governance system, due to aggregation. As Daston wrote, the “point here is that impersonality and impartiality are cultivated by quantifiers as much for moral as for functional reasons. […] Impersonality and impartiality in quantification might be better conceived as a continuum, more or less achieved by an effort of self-imposed restraint, rather than as properties inherent in the numbers themselves” (Daston, 1995, p. 23).
It follows that the stability and integrity of what Daston calls a moral economy of evidence is deeply dependent on its ties to the collective application of empirical research methods that can at best anchor or entrench it, but cannot determine it entirely. Eventually, impressions, perceptions, and even accusations of bribery depend in essential ways upon the kind of “highly specific constellations of emotions and values” (Daston, 1995, pp. 3–4) that, in this case, are associated with new Sino-Pacific relations framed within a “China threat” discourse. The moral economy of selecting the investigation’s focus, sorting through the evidence, and applying the standards of explanation is fundamental to the investigative process. All of these are actions that actualize potential values held by self-disciplining individuals who are only vaguely aware of their desire to categorize evidence and are deeply emotionally involved.
This analysis of the moral economy of evidence as being inextricably tied to the measurement of corruption suggests why it is possible to turn impressions about corruption in Sino-Pacific relations into a televised accusation of bribery. However, it does not explain why the interpretation of evidence tilts toward this argumentative direction. Hence, it is necessary to extend the analysis to the impression that corruption in China is relatively more acceptable, the assertion that China does not fight corruption as much as other countries, and the combination of these within the debate about new Sino-Pacific diplomatic relations.
The argument that corruption in China is relatively more acceptable and/or widespread because of cultural differences is often used (Kwong, 2015, p. vii; Chen et al., 2020, p. 2). The idea of a “folklore of corruption” (Myrdal, 1968) and of the “excuse of culture” is, however, inaccurate in China as much as in the Pacific and other parts of the world (Larmour, 2012, p. 155). For this reason, the argument presented in this article should not be understood simply as an instance of cultural relativism. These ideas reflect “actual corruption imperfectly, especially in an environment of change” (Manion, 2004, p. 19).
In China “the penal code of the Qin Dynasty (221–207 BC) already included the phenomenon of corruption and placed heavy penalties on it” (Schweitzer, 2005, p. 16). In more recent times, the attitude towards corruption in China has been frequently epitomized by the words of President Jiang Zemin, who defined fighting against corruption as “a matter of life and death” (Schramm & Taube, 2005, p. 181). The numerous anti-corruption initiatives taken by successive generations of Chinese leaders (Gong & Ren, 2013; Hao et al., 2020; Harding, 1981) resulted in policies changing from sporadic campaigns to more institutionalized techniques, and from power-driven correction to rule-based integrity management (Gong & Tu, 2022). Although at times the spread of corruption outpaced institutional efforts against it (Gong, 2015; Zhan, 2012) the process continued and culminated with the most recent anti-corruption campaign launched in December 2012 (Brown, 2018; Fisman & Golden, 2017, p. 72). Arguably, this has been the most widespread and effective initiative so far (Gong & Tu, 2022, p. 1).
In the case analyzed in this article, the term “bribery” was used to qualify the supposed reciprocation, in the form of foreign capital, for support that Vanuatu will, hypothetically, give to China in United Nations resolutions. This assumption that Sino-Pacific diplomatic relations are inherently illicit is also encouraged by an appreciation of the economic and power imbalance between the actors involved. The spectacular magnitude of China’s economic weight and the increasing outreach of the Pacific leg of the Belt and Road Initiative easily lend themselves to the production of “island shopping” narratives. Unsurprisingly, numerous Western commentators denounce that China undermines Pacific Islands’ governance through corrupt practices (Atkinson, 2010; Dobell, 2007; Dornan & Brant, 2014; Grigg & McKenzie, 2018; Henderson & Reilly, 2003; Smith & Lim, 2018; Varrall, 2021, p. 113-115). That is indeed a rather widespread stereotype that does not take into account the multifaceted dimensions of China’s multilateral engagements (Davis et al., 2020). China formally adheres to international anti-corruption norms and since May 2011 the bribery of foreign public officials abroad has been further criminalized. Jurisprudential specifications are listed in the 8th Amendment to China’s Criminal Law (Bakken & Wang, 2021). For example, Article 164(2) forbids individuals, companies, and other organizations who operate under Chinese jurisdiction from transferring whatever form of property to foreign public officials to seek some kind of benefit. This and other articles have been added to the Chinese legislation to draw it closer to the UNCAC. At the time of the amendment, the widespread perception that foreign bribery in the Asia-Pacific region was under-criminalized played an important role in encouraging legislative changes.
Critical commentators highlight that formal adherence to new jurisprudential codes of this kind remains unsubstantial if the principles contained in the laws are not concretized in anti-bribery actions (Borak, 2017; Miller & Hoffman, 2017; Miller & Schoenberg, 2017). However, there is nothing specifically Chinese in the slow progression from anti-bribery legislation to enforcement. For example, more than three-quarters of the enforcement actions of the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act took place after 2007, that is, 30 years after it was first enacted. Arguing that there must be numerous reasons why the process took such a long time seems to be a more sensible approach than the overtly simple assertion that the main cause must be the supposed corrupt nature of the American system, let alone American culture. Other cases of lengthy processes from legislation to enforcement can be studied in the history of foreign bribery laws introduced in the United Kingdom, South Korea, Japan, and many other countries. TI observed that during more than 15 years since the Convention on Combating Foreign Bribery established global standards to criminalize bribery of foreign public officials, only about 50% of the 42 countries adhering to it had prosecuted one or more perpetrators (Bjørnskov & Paldam, 2005). In all the other countries it is still like the Convention remains only ink on paper. However, when absorbed in a “China threat” discourse, the delays of the Chinese judicial system can be indicated as exceptional.
China is another country in which a steady decrease in corruption has been observed. As of 2020, the People’s Republic ranks 78 out of 180 countries on the CPI published by TI, 3 positions above the 2012 report. Still, as mentioned above, the majority of methods used to evaluate the levels of corruption in a country and across countries are largely based on perceived levels of corruption. Hence, the methodology should arguably include some measure of reflexivity, lest the tools end up being considered more precise and objective than they are. Otherwise, the assumption that standardized methods for corruption assessment across countries exist becomes increasingly strong and rooted in international debates and strategies, as suggested by Harris (2020). According to her work, perception-based and experience-based tools, as well as a combination of the two, can be used if a context-specific degree of reflexivity is applied. Context-specific sectoral tools may lead to relatively clear policy implications, and repeated applications of sectoral tools within one country over time can be beneficial for assessing the impact of anti-corruption efforts. Such a reflexive approach to anti-corruption measurement tools should incorporate a reflection on different moral economies of corruption and how these are influenced by current debates, such as the “China threat” debate. Indeed, the tendency in the international debate about corruption to suggest that China’s limits in the enforcement of foreign anti-bribery laws are atypical compared to other countries (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2021; Transparency International, 2019) can be considered as, at least partly, disconnected from the evaluation of the processes that bring anti-bribery principles to concretize into enforcement actions. This tendency is perhaps best understood within the context of international debates about “Chinese expansionism,” “China threat” discourses, and, more specifically, the increasing presence and influence of China in the Pacific.
Since both the excuse of culture and the assertion that China does not fight corruption can be opposed with substantial evidence and argumentation, other explanations for why the moral economy of evidence regarding corruption in Sino-Pacific relations turned into a televised accusation of bribery ought to be sought. The televised accusation of bribery can be explained in terms of sensationalism, but in the context presented in this article, a more persuasive explanation seems to be that it is intended to represent Sino-Pacific relations as essentially corrupt. In the debate about Chinese “expansionism” in general (Armony, 2012; Munro, 1992), the term ‘corruption’ symbolizes the decline of the receiving partner, it “bears a significant connotation of rottenness or vileness” that will necessarily lead to the “fall of a State or a culture” (Schweitzer, 2005, p. 16). The circulation of these attributions in international debates often results in adverse consequences in foreign relations, policy, and commerce. Every time allegations of Chinese nationals or institutions allegedly bribing foreign officials make headlines, the global perception of China deteriorates even though those very headlines might be interpreted, instead, as evidence that corruption is falling (Fisman & Golden, 2017, pp. 34, 74). It is precisely because accusations of corruption can be “used to undermine and destroy the reputations of political competitors” (Mancini, 2019, p. 161) that legislations prescribe institutionalized processes and procedures of ex-post prosecution and sanction. However, journalists may feel “part of a privileged group, inside society and yet outside it, with a license to scourge it” (O’Neil, 2013, p. 22). That might not be unjustified, for the role of watchdog of democracy has been underlined by many scholars (e.g. Stier, 2015; Strömbäck, 2005; Trappel & Tomaz, 2021; Zaller, 2003). Still, in areas of divergence such as the Chinese Pacific and, more broadly, in the global geopolitical dispute about Chinese “expansionism,” it is possible to exaggerate such a role by using televised accusations of bribery as weapons in a parallel debate without necessarily addressing the actual object of the dispute.
Rather than understanding the accusation of “bribery” literally, in the “Chinese Pacific” this kind of televised accusation is best interpreted as indicative of tensions between China and post-colonial actors whose actual object of contention remains unaddressed in the background. To illustrate my argument, I used a decolonial and relational approach to the moral economy of international relations as one way of reconsidering how powerful international actors represent Sino-Pacific relations. Based on a re-contextualization of a televised accusation of bribery within current international debates about the presence and influence of China in the Pacific, the article shows that some contributors to this debate might overlook this kind of approaches and perspectives and instead focus on the perceived risks associated with Sino-Pacific relations.
The application of a decolonial approach to this debate consists, in this case, of the deconstruction of key terms of the debate. Finally, the application of a relational approach to international relations corroborated the argument about areas of convergence in Sino-Pacific relations, and the perspective of the moral economy of evidence reconfigured some of the challenges of measuring corruption. In conclusion, accusations of bribery in an increasingly sinicized Pacific can be interpreted as resulting from an arbitrary selection of evidence taking place within a heated debate in which corruption is not treated as a universal human phenomenon (Klitgaard, 1988, p. 77), one that tends to increasingly manifest itself as societies confront a growing degree of complexity (Fleck and Kuzmics, 1985; in Schweitzer, 2005, p. 16), but rather as a distinctive feature of the moral economy of the opponent.