A batch of workers from China are due in the Cook Islands in coming weeks to start work on an aid project, regarded as a world first.
The US$50 million project to upgrade Rarotonga's water supply was signed off amid some fanfare at the Pacific Islands Forum last year, as the first joint aid venture between a traditional western donor and China.
Researcher Dr Philippa Brant has been in the Cook Islands to study the project which will see the Chinese lay 26 kilometres of pipes and New Zealanders install water treatment facilities.
PHILIPPA BRANT: My understanding is there will be between 30 and 40 Chinese workers coming in. They're set to arrive in the next couple of months. And they will be contracted by the Chinese companies that will be implementing their part of the project. And this company has been involved in the islands for a number of years, so well-established. They actually built some of the other Chinese aid projects there. My understanding is the original plan was for 70 Chinese workers to come, and the Cook Islands government negotiated that to down to between 30 and 40.
SALLY ROUND: And the workers that are coming from China, do they have specialist skills?
PB: I think there are likely to be a number of engineers and labourers.
SR: Why did you particularly want to study this project?
PB: I've been looking at China's aid programme in the region and in the world for a number of years. And I'm really interested in the opportunities that there may be for China and traditional donors to work together. So I was interested in this example because it really is a world first project between a traditional donor, a western donor, and China co-operating together.
SR: Because there has been some controversy about China's assistance to Pacific Island countries, anyway.
PB: Yes, absolutely. And I think what is interesting for me is to track the progression of China's aid programme over the past few years. You're right in saying there have been a number of problems with many of the earlier projects - the courthouse in the Cook Islands is rusty and the air conditioner is not working, the stadium that China funded has a big crack in the side of it. So I was interested in, why now is China ready to co-operate with another donor? What's the interest for them? And I really think they are genuinely interested in both improving their image in the region, but also learning about how other donors give aid.
SR: What did you exactly discover there?
PB: Part of what I did when I was in the Cooks a couple of weeks ago have a chat with all the different stakeholders involved, to understand the objectives from each of their sides for being involved in the project. And something that did really strike me was that there was a genuine concern on the Chinese part - particularly the Chinese Embassy in Wellington - that they wanted to make sure that any future projects that they're involved in have a positive outcome for the people of the Cook Islands.
SR: How do you see the New Zealanders co-operating with the Chinese? What are their skills, what is the input and how is the relationship?
PB: I guess the interesting thing about this project is it really is being driven by the Cook Islands government. And they are taking a very strong role in managing both the project implementation, but also they've set up really strong governance structures so that they will convene meetings between the New Zealand side, the Chinese and their own people to make sure that, I guess, both the political elements of the project are working, as well as the more technical project elements. New Zealand has quite a strong relationship with China and a good relationship with China in the region. So for them I think this is another opportunity to further those ties.
SR: Where did the impetus come from for the project? Was it the Chinese, the New Zealanders or the Cook Islands government?
PB: It's really been driven by the Cook Islands government. They've had this identified need for a huge water improvement project and there happened to be a Chinese loan that China pledged a number of years ago that the Cook Islands government decided then that they were not in the financial position to take on, so the loan was sitting in the background. And through, I guess, almost a serendipitous alignment of objectives you had the priority for the Cook Islands government to get this project happening, you had a Chinese loan sitting there, and New Zealand was prepared to assist the Cook Islands government by providing some grant funding, which enabled the cooks to set up up structures that could better manage the Chinese loan.
SR: So can you see this model working in other Pacific Islands?
PB: I think it could. The example of the Cooks is quite unique, given the special relationship that the Cooks and New Zealand has. But also the fact that the Chinese aid programme in the Cooks is managed through the Chinese Embassy in Wellington. So it's the same representative on the Chinese side that manages the New Zealand-Cooks relationship, so you're only dealing with one person there. But I do think that other Pacific Island countries will be looking at this as a potential model for themselves.