Pacific Scoop

China plays own game for ‘constructive’ Pacific aid

Chinese aid

Chinese aid in Pacific follows its own Beijing rules. Photo: Chinhdangvu News

China made it clear during recent talks with Pacific Islands Forum leaders that it does not want to participate in coordinated aid efforts in the Pacific. This has ruffled some feathers, but is China’s growing involvement and influence in the Pacific really a cause for concern?

Pacific Scoop:
Report – By Sarah Robson

China doesn’t want to be bound by the rules and regulations of regional institutions in how it delivers aid to the Pacific.

And as a sovereign state, China is quite entitled to turn down invitations to participate in coordinated aid efforts in the Pacific.

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key, incoming chair of the Pacific Islands Forum, said the Chinese delegation in Auckland earlier this month for talks with Forum leaders made it clear they did not want to be bound by the Cairns Compact, an agreement for better coordination and information sharing about aid programmes, the New Zealand Herald has reported.

Key is not concerned about China’s involvement in the Pacific, and has emphasised New Zealand’s own constructive relationship with China.

Key’s view is shared by New Zealand’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Murray McCully, who says New Zealand is one of the Pacific countries best placed to embark on joint projects with China in the Pacific – if not now, then in the future.

In an interview with thePIF 40 years logo Lowy Institute as the Forum got underway, McCully said China was attempting to play a constructive role within the region.

“The challenge is to try and translate that into more partnerships, greater transparency, greater cooperation,” he said.

“It’s a work in progress, but I take the view that China is doing in the Pacific what it is doing everywhere else in the world. It’s looking for resources that it needs to access, it’s looking to make sure that its interests are understood as a global player. We need to meet them halfway and turn that into a more cooperative effort in the region.”

China’s vision
China sees itself as a friend and cooperative partner of Pacific Island countries.

Vice-Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai, who headed the Chinese delegation at the post-Forum dialogue, says China will “continue to be a positive and constructive force in the region”.

At the talks, Cui outlined how China is going to help Pacific Island countries achieve sustainable economic and social development.

Cui emphasised initiatives to provide more support for tourism in the region, as well as support for the development of the energy and fishery sectors.

China’s assistance to the Pacific will include more high-level visits, more educational scholarships, more infrastructure projects, forums to facilitate closer business ties, debt write-offs and a US$400,000 contribution to the China-Pacific Island Forum Cooperation Fund to be used for agreed projects.

Cui described China’s aid to the Pacific as “mutual assistance” between developing countries, as opposed to official development aid that is provided by the likes of Australia and New Zealand.

“For many years, China has been extending economic and technical assistance to Pacific Island countries and regional organisations, despite the fact it is not a rich country itself,” he says.

“As China’s economy continues to develop, China will gradually increase its aid to other countries as its ability permits, explore new ways and areas of cooperation with all Pacific Island countries and further expand economic and technical cooperation.”

Cui also signalled that China is ready to learn from the experiences of other aid-giving countries and will begin to look at cooperative initiatives, as long as certain conditions are met.

“Under the principle of adopting a step-by-step approach and starting with easier issues, China is ready to discuss trilateral cooperation on aid with relevant counties and organisations, on the condition that the will of recipient countries are respected with no political strings.”

Pacific partner
China’s involvement in the Pacific is part of its wider global strategy.

“China does see itself as a leading power in Asia principally, but it also has aspirations for itself in a global sense, and not just in an Asian sense, but in a wider Asia Pacific sense,” says Professor Robert Ayson, director of the Centre of Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington.

“At the very least, it sees itself as one of a series of major powers in Asia, but there’s a debate going on as to whether China sees itself as potentially the preeminent power, in a sense displacing the United States in the Asia Pacific.”

However, Professor Ayson says the importance of the Pacific region to China should not be overstated.

“For China, the South Pacific is not a leading priority, it’s not the thing that keeps Chinese leaders awake at night,” he explains.

“But I think China does want to be seen as an active part of the Asia-Pacific, I think it sees the South Pacific as part of the wider region where it would like to have some influence and some presence.”

Dr Marc Lanteigne, a senior lecturer in the School of Political Science and International Relations at Victoria University of Wellington, says that for a long time, Chinese investment in the Pacific could be traced back to its diplomatic competition with Taiwan.

A truce between China and Taiwan came into force in 2008, but since then, China has widened and deepened its investment in the Pacific.

Dr Lanteigne says there are a variety of reasons for this.

“There are some resources which China is interested in, primarily fishing, and in Papua New Guinea, oil, gas and minerals. In other cases though, China is looking to the future for when the civilian and military vessels start operating in the South Pacific.”

Some commentators have interpreted China’s actions in the Pacific as being part of a strategy to push the United States and its allies from the western Pacific.

“I don’t subscribe to anything quite that draconian,” Dr Lanteigne says.

“China is really trying to underscore that it’s not similar to previous powers in the region, such as the US and France and Britain. They’re really playing up the idea that they are a partner, they are not interested in big state-small state economic cooperation, they are simply a partner.”

Cooperation prospects
Although China is within its rights to say no to participating in coordinated aid efforts in the Pacific, Dr Lanteigne says its reluctance to do so is unfortunate.

“It has been argued, especially by groups such as the Lowy Institute, that for China to enter into more conjoint development projects with some of the other major players, it would be beneficial,” he says.

“It would mean money better spent, plus it would allow for greater coordination of aid in the region.”

One of the issues for China is that, unlike most major players in the Pacific, it has no central aid agency like NZAid or AusAID.

“Aid money comes from a variety of different quarters, some of which are much less transparent than, say, AusAID and that has not done much to fuel speculation that some of this aid is politically motivated more than anything else,” Dr Lanteigne said.

It may just take time to bring China into the fold of Pacific aid initiatives.

“China is still very much a newcomer to the region and it is still trying to solidify its own South Pacific agenda. There might be still a bit of lingering mistrust for China to join various other joint aid initiatives until it feels that its own aid policies have matured, but it’s very tough to tell.”

But as China’s global power grows, Professor Ayson says it is inevitable China would have more of an aid presence in the Pacific.

“I think it’s a matter of rather than being fearful about it, it’s about seeking to try to work with China and to make sure that, like other countries and other external presences in the region, their presence is as helpful and responsible as possible and that they are not in a position of any sort of monopoly position.”

Sarah Robson is a Postgraduate Diploma in Communication Studies student journalist on the Asia-Pacific Journalism course at AUT University.

Other AUT student journalist coverage of Forum issues