Xi's visit to Pacific heavy on symbolism
The visit to Fiji by the Chinese President has taken China's ties with the Pacific Island region to new heights but observers say the symbolism of the visit was much more significant than announcements about aid and co-operation.
The visit to Fiji by the Chinese President Xi Jin Ping last week has taken China's ties with the Pacific Island region to new heights.
Observers say the symbolism of the visit was much more significant than announcements about aid and co-operation.
Sally Round reports.
Fiji rolled out the red carpet for the Chinese leader who'd come from the G20 in Brisbane, and state visits to Australia and New Zealand.
XI JIN PING: "The very purpose of my visit to Fiji this time and also convening a collective meeting with the heads of government of Pacific Island countries is to deepen our traditional friendship and to promote mutually beneficial co-operation."
Fiji's Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama welcomed Mr Xi as a firm friend.
"China never tried to interfere in our internal affairs or tell us what was best for us as a nation. Instead China was there in our time of need when others in the region have turned their backs on us."
Fiji played host to meetings between Mr Xi and the eight Pacific Island countries who have diplomatic links to China. Those who recognise Taiwan did not attend.
Jia Xiudong of the China Institute of International Studies told Chinese state television Fiji plays a vital role in the relationship.
"Fiji is a key player in the South Pacific region so Fiji can (act) as a bridge between China and other Pacific island nations so that the two countries can boost together the development in the Pacific Island area."
Mr Xi pledged continued support in developing their economies, infrastructure and tackling climate change.
The so-called "strategic partnership" he announced also revolves around co-operation and people-to-people exchanges as Mr Jia explains.
"There are several key words which are very important for China's relationship with these nations. The first is respect. China respects the choices of these island nations for their political system and also China supports their very active participation in international affairs on an equal footing."
Philippa Brant of the Australian thinktank, the Lowy Institute, studies China's aid to the region.
She says Xi Jin Ping's visit was part of his role as a new leader, reaching out to countries around the world.
"What was interesting to me is we didn't really see anything of substance being announced. I think it is symbolically important for the Pacific Island countries to know that they have this so-called strategic partnership with China but in practical terms I don't think it will mean much."
Dr Brant says the agreements signed are part of the 1 billion dollar funding package signed last year.
The types of projects to be funded reflect China's desire for a more positive image in the region and echo the major shift in aid delivery strategy outlined in Beijing's much-awaited white paper on aid released in July, from infrastructure to capacity-building.
"There has been around the region and around the world a backlash from some communities about some of the Chinese projects so it's important for Chinese government now to reach out and establish stronger people to people links so we see an increase in the number of scholarships available, more training sessions, opportunities for tourism and increased air links, these kind of things and I think they will be very important to deepen the relation beyond just an infrastructure or economic transactional relationship."
The meetings with Mr Xi followed a so-called mini-summit with the Indian prime minister Narendra Modi who also flew in after the G20.
Papua New Guinea's Foreign Minister Rimbink Pato says he doesn't think India and China are squaring off for influence in the region.
"From our point of view there are issues or challenges of concern to us, some of which are very similar to India and to China and they've got resources which they're seeking to utilise for our benefit in our region and therefore what's the downside for us?"
He says the meetings were all about globalisation and connectivity and opportunities not to be missed.
"These are exciting times for the Pacific but we will always be working in partnership with Australia and New Zealand as always."
Vanuatu MP Willy Jimmy was previously the country's ambassador to China.
He says Vanuatu appreciates China's help with infrastructure projects like an international conference centre, and the upgrading of roads and airport.
"China is just complementing, to assist Vanuatu with projects that are being left out by other donor partners which we appreciate very much. I think China just wants to keep its presence in the Pacific like any other donors, Australia, New Zealand, the US. So China wants to make its presence felt ... that 'I'm also there'."
A security analyst with the consultancy 36th Parallel Assessments, Paul Buchanan, sees a more strategic dimension to China's moves in the region.
"The Chinese footprint is well-established throughout the South Pacific but Fiji is the lynchpin of their geopolitical strategy in the South Pacific and it encompasses economic, social, cultural, diplomatic and military relations so it's a full spectrum interest that will establish China I believe as a permanent presence in the South Pacific hosted by Fiji."
Dr Buchanan says the visit will make the United States sit up and could lead to Suva being a centre for intelligence gathering by espionage agencies of both the Five Eyes partners and the Chinese.
We will see an increased emphasis on the US embassy and we probably will see the increasing US soft power being projected into Fiji to try to match in some way, shape or form that which the Chinese have been projecting into Fiji over the last ten years or so.
Observers say Mr Xi's visit is also part of an effort to promote its one China policy and win over those countries with links to Taiwan as well as to cement support from a not unimportant bloc of nations at the UN.
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