29 Mar 2015

Dragon's touch - China's Pacific outreach

From Insight, 8:12 am on 29 March 2015

China is moving to boost its one on one links with individuals in the Pacific. As Insight has been discovering it's just the latest stage in Beijing's ever growing interest in the region.

Samoa's PM Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi poses with a delegate from China in Samoa.

Samoa's PM Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi poses with a delegate from China. Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

Listen to Insight: China in the Pacific

China is putting increasing emphasis on personal and cultural exchanges, scholarships and training for Pacific Islanders.

But while local people are being encouraged to look to China, questions remain about the impact of Beijing's activities in the region.

China's engagement with the Pacific is still a recent phenomenon. But it's moved quickly.

As part of its efforts to grow links with island nations, Beijing has established a NZ$1.3 billion loan facility for the Pacific Islands.

China's President Xi Jinping has also pledged to provide 2000 university scholarships and 5000 training opportunities for Pacific Islanders in the next five years.

Rebecca Bogiri is a young ni-Vanuatu who completed a five-year scholarship in Beijing.

She says scholarship holders like her have the chance to pick up the language and improve their understanding of Chinese culture. When they return, their career prospects are also greatly improved.

Returning Pacific scholarship recipients have a new range of opportunities, she says, including in "areas that cater for the needs of these new and incoming Chinese and the increasing Chinese numbers in the Pacific."

Meanwhile, more Chinese migrants are coming to live and do business in Pacific islands. The pattern broadly follows the Chinese government's outreach strategy for Pacific Islands, offering more trade and investment than ever before.

Yet suspicions persist about China's motives, particularly among the Pacific region's traditional external powers.

Exacerbating this is Beijing's traditional hesitance to disclose information about its aid to the Pacific. China's bureaucracy around its aid programme is weaker than that of other large donors and that has made it difficult to find out the true value of Chinese aid.

But the picture is getting clearer. A Chinese aid specialist, Philippa Brant, who is with the Sydney based Lowy Institute, an independent international policy think tank, has recently produced a landmark web map setting out Chinese aid projects throughout the Pacific.



Considering the transparency issue, the involvement of so many Chinese representatives at the recent China and the Pacific conference at the National University of Samoa, was seen as ground breaking. It was a rare chance to hear Chinese views on China's involvement in the Pacific.

China has a long-running relationship with Samoa and the examples of its high impact aid projects in Apia are many.

Samoa government building, Apia.

Samoa government building, Apia. Photo: RNZI / Johnny Blades

The affection with which Chinese view Samoa was evident when attempts to interview the Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, outside the conference were interrupted by Chinese delegates seeking to have selfies snapped with the leader. He was only too happy to oblige.

 Chinese scholars and officials in attendance were moved by the dawn ava, or kava,  ceremony that kicked off proceedings.

"That was so great, it actually impressed me a lot," said Wang Xuedong of the National Centre for Oceania Studies at China's Sun Yat-sen University, Guangzhou.

"I thought it was a dream. It's unreal for me."

But if the Chinese are touched by Pacific culture, they are still some way off winning the hearts and minds of Pacific Islanders. Resentment at Chinese dominance in small to medium businesses throughout the Islands region is rife.

White 2 story Chinese supermarket in Apia, Samoa with terracotta tiled roof and Chinese signage. .

Chinese supermarket in Apia, Samoa. Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

Walk into a supermarket or general store in most Pacific island countries and chances are you will find it is run by Chinese.

Their business acumen may be a driver for local economies, but it's also somewhat alien to many Pacific cultures.

A specialist in Samoan governance from the University of Otago's Department of Politics, Iati Iati, has just concluded a survey in Samoa of grassroots views on Chinese in the country, and says there is a lot of concern that Samoans are being driven out of business.

"They just cannot compete, both in terms of price and in terms of the fact that a lot of Samoan businesses are caught up in certain cultural protocols which makes it a little bit expensive for them."

Chinese migration to Samoa goes back to the turn of the 20th century and those earlier generations are generally perceived to have integrated well. But Dr Iati says the most recent wave does not seem to want to integrate with Samoa society.

"Not even to a small degree. The latest wave, they want to keep to themselves."

Where ever the Chinese go in the Pacific, it seems to attract criticism. This is especially the case in Papua New Guinea.

A specialist in journalism and publishing at PNG's Divine Word University, Patrick Matbob says lax systems and widespread corruption in his country mean Chinese criminal interests have found an easy foothold.

He says this is preventing PNG from benefiting fully from all the new Chinese investment.

"PNG has some major governance issues. Forget about trade and investments because if we have problems within, we cannot get things right."

But are the Chinese to blame for the inherent problems in Pacific cultures?

Liu Hongzhong of the Centre for Oceanian Studies at Peking University feels Chinese get unfairly blamed for Pacific Islanders' dissatisfaction with their own local governments.

She says China is gradually learning more about the Pacific.

"China is still a developing country and a lot of the general public probably don't quite understand the Pacific Island nations and their cultures.

"But at the same time, the lack of information about the other side of the world might cause a lot of misunderstandings and mistrust about the Chinese," she said.

She suggests the time has come to dispense with what she calls "misperceptions about China's role in the Pacific."

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