SUVA, Fiji (AP) — For Georgina Matilda, working for Chinese infrastructure company China Railway means that she can put food on the table for her children.
Like many Fijians, Matilda sees a benefit in foreign investment wherever it comes from, so long as it uplifts the people.
“I think Chinese is good coming in Fiji,” said another Fijian, Miliane Rokolita. “They bring us bigger houses. They bring money in Fiji. They’re good people.”
The welcoming attitude by many in Fiji and elsewhere in the South Pacific comes as China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi sweeps through on an island-hopping tour amid growing international concerns about Beijing’s military and financial ambitions in the region.
On Monday, Wang hosts a key meeting in Fiji with foreign ministers from 10 Pacific nations he hopes will endorse a sweeping new agreement covering everything from security to fisheries.
But some nations are pushing back. David Panuelo, president of the Federated States of Micronesia, has told other leaders he won’t endorse the plan, warning them in a letter that it would needlessly heighten geopolitical tensions and threaten regional stability.
Panuelo called it “the single most game-changing proposed agreement in the Pacific in any of our lifetimes” and said it “threatens to bring a new Cold War era at best, and a World War at worst.”
A draft of the agreement obtained by The Associated Press shows that China wants to train Pacific police officers, team up on “traditional and non-traditional security” and expand law enforcement cooperation.
China also wants to jointly develop a marine plan for fisheries — which would include the Pacific’s lucrative tuna catch — increase cooperation on running the region’s internet networks, and set up cultural Confucius Institutes and classrooms. China also mentions the possibility of setting up a free trade area with the Pacific nations.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a speech Thursday that China posed an even more serious long-term threat than Russia.
“China is the only country with both the intent to reshape the international order — and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to do it,” he said. “Beijing’s vision would move us away from the universal values that have sustained so much of the world’s progress over the past 75 years.”
China hit back, saying the U.S. was spreading disinformation. The aim of Blinken’s speech was to “contain and suppress China’s development and uphold U.S. hegemony,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said. “We strongly deplore and reject this.”
China says that in the Pacific, cooperation between Beijing and the island nations has been expanding in a development that’s welcomed by those countries.
In Fiji, the economy was hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. The vital tourism industry shut down overnight and GDP shrank by more than 15%. As the world reopens, Fiji is trying to bounce back, and many are happy to see China write the checks.
China’s involvement in the region doesn’t come completely out of the blue. There has been a long history of Chinese immigration in Fiji, with many Chinese Fijians running corner stores and other businesses.
“There’s a good side and a bad side,” said Nora Nabukete, a student at the University of the South Pacific. ”We get more money into the economy, being pumped in and stuff, but then there’s also a side where they bring in a lot of new things that are new to the Fijian culture.”
Nabukete worries about the seedier side that has been associated with Chinese investment in Fiji — a supposed influx of gambling, gangs and drugs.
She said that aligning with China could mean that Fiji creates tension with the United States and other Western nations, and for that reason, she hopes that Fiji doesn’t endorse Wang’s agreement.
“There’s so much more to lose in the future than what we’re experiencing now if Fiji does sign,” she said.