While China and the West tussle for more influence over the Pacific, leaders hold mixed views on whether developing close ties with China is good for them.
Recent research conducted with 210 stakeholders from Pacific Civil Society Organisations focusing on Papua New Guinea, Fiji and Tonga showed that organisations were concerned about the Belt and Road Initiative, the global infrastructure development strategy adopted by the Chinese government in 2013 to invest in nearly 150 countries and international organisations.
The research argued that China’s influence on Pacific civil society is weak, but this may be different in the political, government and business sectors.
Students at The University of the South Pacific from various regional countries who were asked if they were comfortable with the Chinese influence in the Pacific, raising concerns about debt risks.
The majority of surveyed university students in Papua New Guinea and Fiji would oppose more Chinese aid to their countries if they became leaders in the future.
Pacific Island countries may need to make their decision and feelings known as during his visit to the Pacific in May and June, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi announced that his country would deepen cooperation with Pacific Islands.
This, compared with the funding of infrastructure projects, provides an opportunity for China to deliver less costly aid projects featuring technical transfer and knowledge sharing.
Chinese provinces and cities are also looking for opportunities to enrich the bilateral relations between China and the Pacific Islands.
China is also making efforts to tackle the aid transparency issue, which research suggests is damaging Beijing’s overseas image as a major donor.
Geostrategic competition between China and traditional powers is escalating in the Pacific, as is the diplomatic tug-of-war between China and Taiwan.
Reactions from Pacific Island countries
Fiji’s opposition party has always ferociously attacked the government’s engagements with China. Commenting on Minister Yi’s visit to Fiji, Opposition Leader Professor Biman Prasad had reminded the Fijian Government that as chair of the Pacific forum, the Government must be open and transparent about its role.
Prof Prasad had said that China’s world view did not respect democratic values as has been seen in its recently exposed repressive behaviour in places such as Hong Kong.
Therefore he says a possible relationship with China could also say a lot about the things that Fiji considers important. Samoan Prime Minister Fiame Noame Mata’afa has made her Government’s position clear saying that they would rid the country of predatory Chinese investments.
However Papua New Guinean Prime Minister James Marape cautiously treasures his Government’s relations with China, recently warning of any opposition to his Government and Chinese relations. This is also true for the Solomon Islands and Kiribati.
Then there are Pacific Island countries that find the need for a collective discussion on the issue before they could make a decision on whether to open their doors to China.
Why the sudden interest in the Pacific?
An investigation conducted by Australian program 60 Minutes indicated that Vanuatu, Kiribati and the Solomon Islands were all targets of China’s influence. This could signal trouble for New Zealand and Australia according to the former intelligence chief of the US Navy.
“[China] is interested in this area because it’s essentially the lifeline or the choke point between America and Australia and New Zealand,” Captain Jim Fanell told 60 Minutes.