Until relatively recently, this favourable assessment was been made by linking growth with development and ignoring that the country is ruled by an authoritarian regime.
Over the same period, the US and Australia have given little attention to growth and development in Pacific Islands countries except – in Australia’s case – to Papua New Guinea.
A combination of domestic and international factors have caused living standards in the region to at best stagnate but, more often than not, decline. This may be thought of as an indicator of non-development.
Increased emigration to New Zealand, Australia, North America and Europe in search of waged and salaried employment is a clear measure of this impoverishment.
Given this profile of Western democracies facilitating non-development for so many Pacific Islands people, questions are being raised about whether authoritarian growth under China’s rule may be more advantageous.
If this seems a silly question, consider the position advocated by Professor Stefan Dercon, an Oxford University development economist and one-time advisor in the UK Department for International Development.
In a recently published book, Gambling on Development, Professor Dercon argues that, while `”in the long run democracy may matter”, for now the “nature of the political system is by no means a necessary or sufficient condition for progress”.
In other words, instead of democracy being seen as a handmaiden of development, the current position is that elites are the key agents of development.
This is accompanied by an uncertain attitude to democratic processes – democracy may become important after development occurs.
Rather than challenging entrenched power, the goal of development for Professor Dercon is to co-opt national elites to become agents of development in what he calls a ‘development bargain’.
Unsurprisingly, like many development economists Professor Dercon regards China (or at least Chinese-style authoritarian development) as a desirable model for growth and development.
You may wonder what this argument promoted by a British academic has got to do with policy toward China’s advance in the Pacific Islands.
Increasingly, this focus on elites driving development is becoming the consensus position in institutions like the World Bank.
The ANU’s influential Development Policy Centre has recently become a leading advocate for what is termed ‘labour mobility’, the recruitment of Pacific Islands labour to Australia and New Zealand for seasonal work.
The main reason for this is to fill shortages of agricultural labour on farms, in packing sheds and in meat works.
Underlying these schemes is the assumption that poverty in Pacific Islands countries will continue unchecked and thus ensure a constant stream of temporary migrants desperate for money income.
In the face of ongoing non-development in their home countries, the expectation is that these workers will provide remittances from their wages to meet consumption needs at home that cannot be provided for by local employment.
The extent of the US and Australia’s lack of interest in actual development in the Pacific Islands is now being revealed by the quiet panic about China’s imperial drive into the region.
This advance raises some important policy questions.
Would living standards for Pacific Islands’ people be improved through the imposition of China’s authoritarian model of development?
Or will the US-Australian approach of democratic non-development buttressed by labour mobility schemes become a centrepiece of planning for the future?
Both questions deserve consideration, including by anyone inclined to accept the proposition that the nature of the political system is largely irrelevant for development or well-being in the region.