By Lucy Craymer

WELLINGTON (STUFF NZ) — Samoa and China have been building ties for a long time, but whether the relationship is beneficial depends on who you ask.

China’s surge into the Pacific region is winning it friends and influence. That has consequences for traditional alliances. National Correspondent Lucy Craymer examines the diplomatic tug-of-war in the third of a new five-part series, Pawns of the Pacific.

When the United Nations Human Rights Council​convened last year,​the Canadian​ambassador to the UN took to the podium to present a statement signed by 44 nations – including the US, the UK, Australia and New Zealand.​ It voiced concern about “reports of torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment,” by China against the Uyghur ethnic minority.

Never one to be outdone, Beijing’s representatives followed up with a rebuttal – a statement signed by a total of 69 countries​ – essentially parroting Chinese talking points about not interfering in other nations’ business.

Among those 69 signatories: the Pacific nations of Tonga, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Kiribati.​

For decades, New Zealand and its partners dominated relationships in the Pacific. They built embassies, provided aid and had reciprocal visits with government politicians. No one doubted the region would support the so-called West when needed.

But that influence is very definitely under threat.

A Stuff investigation, with reporting from nations across the Pacific, has examined this growing power struggle. Over five parts, ‘Pawns of the Pacific’, explains how our island neighbours are caught in a geopolitical standoff between an increasingly aggressive China on one side and an increasingly alarmed United States, and its allies and friends, on the other.

Money and power

Jonathan Kings,​Deputy Secretary of the Pacific and Development Group of New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, says that as China has grown, it is more assertive and is using its contributions to further its own interests.

“China is using its development assistance to encourage Pacific countries to give them a pass,” he says, citing issues such as the country’s treatment of the Uyghur ethnic minority and those in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.

“We find it challenging that China is trying to reshape the international order and UN system in any number of ways, and is looking to use its support to do that,” he says.​

Liberal democracies have long used money to try to convince other countries to follow their lead, as the United States did through the Marshall Plan in the wake of World War II. The issue for these liberal democracies, including New Zealand, is that China, an authoritarian country whose views on many issues including democracy differ from our own, is attempting to do the same.

Furthermore, this is coming at a time when tensions between the US and China are growing and countries are looking to their friends to support their positions on issues such as territorial claims in the South China Sea.

How has China grown its influence?

China’s engagement with the Pacific has grown significantly. It has increased diplomatic engagement in the region, boosted investment, and increased outreach by example donating sports equipment and providing Chinese language classes. It has also become the region’s largest trading partner, and helped fund regional organisations – as well as creating its own Pacific multilateral meeting. There are a growing number of Chinese people and businesses now living and operating in the region.

In recent years, China has used its own media and engaged with Pacific organisations to tell its story. The Chinese Ambassador’s recent column for the Papua New Guinea’s Post-Courier​ and The National​ papers describes the Chinese people as enjoying “a broad, full, real, concrete and effective democracy.”​

Wang Genhua,​ Minister Councillor at the Chinese Embassy in Wellington, says China will develop friendly relations with any country that wants to develop friendly relation with it, and that includes the Pacific Islands.

“We develop very normal diplomatic relations with all the friends in the region,” he says.

All of this effort is paying dividends. Pacific countries have lent their support to China on issues such as sovereignty in the South China Sea. Its influence is now an election issue in some states, and on a number of occasions Chinese police have been able to deport citizens to China where they alleged wrongdoing.

In 2017, for example, Chinese police arrested 77 alleged Chinese scammers in Fiji and deported them. On one occasion, some of those arrested held dual citizenship.

But perhaps the most significant is the switching of diplomatic allegiances to China from Taiwan.

As China has sought to grow its influence in the world, it has systematically picked off the small countries that still recognised its democratic rival – Taiwan – over the Communist Party-run mainland.

In one week in September 2019,​ both Solomon Islands and Kiribati cut their ties with Taiwan and switched their allegiance to China. Taiwan was left with just 15 states that recognised it.

Anote Tong​, the former Kiribati President​, led the government when they chose to recognise Taiwan in 2003​. At the time, he said he came under intense pressure from the Chinese to not go through with the change.

But he remains outspoken against Beijing.

“What does Taiwan want from Kiribati? Nothing. Just recognition,” Tong says. “What does China want? Everything!” In Africa, China has bought mines and gained access to resources, he says. And in the South China Sea, it has built islands to grow its fishing grounds.

“And we (Kiribati) are strategic because we have the fish resources, and they need that, and we are ideally geographically located.”

The former Kiribati ambassador to Taiwan, Tessie Lambourne,​helped establish a new political party, the Kiribati Democratic Party, in part to give voice to concerns that the country’s sovereignty is now being compromised.

“I believe they [China] are trying to put us in debt – in their debt – because that’s their leverage to take control of whatever resource they are after,” Lambourne says.

The Kiribati government did not respond to emailed questions regarding its relationship with China or its moves to open up the fishing grounds.

The push back

Nauru is one of four​countries in the Pacific that continue to recognise Taiwan – and rebuff China’s increasingly aggressive advances.

In 2018, when the country hosted the Pacific Islands Forum, Chinese diplomats demanded visas in their diplomatic passports. But Nauru refused as it didn’t recognise Beijing as the government of China, and instead they were forced to use ordinary passports. 

Then, when a Chinese official tried to speak before Prime Ministers of Pacific states, Nauru wouldn’t let him because ministers had to take precedence over diplomats. He stormed out.

“Maybe because he was from a big country he wanted to bully us,” Baron Waqa, the then president of Nauru, said at the time. He added that the Pacific would no longer tolerate any interference.

A couple of months later, the then-Papua New Guinea foreign minister Rimbink Pato reportedly experienced similar aggression. Four diplomats are said to have stormed into his office demanding last-minute changes to the APEC communiqué. China denies this happened.

He refused to meet them, arguing that bilateral negotiations with an individual delegation might jeopardise the country’s neutrality as host.

Just last November, in the Solomon Islands, people took to the streets in the capital of Honiara. They protested – or rioted. Much of the city’s Chinatown was destroyed as the protesters – many from the more populous island of Malaita – called for the country’s Prime Minister to step down.

Malaita is Solomon Islands most populous island, but development has lagged behind Guadalcanal, where the capital Honiara is situated. Even after the Solomon Islands government chose to recognise Beijing not Taiwan, the Malaita regional government has pushed for a relationship with Taiwan and taken more aid from the U.S. The Malaita government argues it does so because it is opposed to communism and how it views faith.

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare in an address following the riots blamed foreign interference over his government’s decision to switch alliances from Taiwan to Beijing for what had happened. He did not go into more detail.

But political analysts say along with the shift in recognition a key driver was unemployment and corruption that benefited foreign companies.

Peter Kenilorea Jr,​ a Solomon Islands politician and the former permanent secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and External Trade, says there has always been animosity between Solomon Islanders and the local Asian community. This is a result of the Chinese community being seen as wealthy and dominating, for example, the retail sector.

However, Kenilorea says he is somewhat concerned about the growing influence of China in the country and a move away from traditional partners like New Zealand, who he refers to as big brothers.

“My fear is that we have been swayed by other ideologies,” he says, noting he’s heard people speak about the Solomon Islands being closer to Asia than to Australia and New Zealand.

“We are at the front line of climate change – that is clear, and we’ve been part of the moral voice in the Pacific Islands to have this addressed. But I think that with geopolitics, we’re also at the front line,” says Kenilorea, who would like to see New Zealand and Australia do more to highlight the values they share with the Solomon Islands.

In Samoa, when the newly formed FAST party started campaigning, China’s influence in Samoa was a hot topic. People were upset about the number of Chinese businesses operating in the country, the sale of local land and changes that undermined historic rights such as who has the ability to give out chiefdoms.

It was a message that helped see the Human Rights Protection Party removed from power after nearly 40 years governing Samoa.

For voter Mene Tu’uga, 59, from Fagamalo in Savai’i Island, the FAST party’s message resonated.

“The lands and titles of Samoa are our treasure,” he says. He’s waiting to see whether the government does something to protect Samoa from China. So far, the FAST-led government has vetoed plans for China to build a wharf in the country.

Can we win back our friends?

With focus back on the Pacific, governments are trying to boost relationships. This was never clearer than during the response to the volcanic eruption and tsunami in January, when governments responded with military resources and aid in a show of friendship.

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs went as far as declaring that they were “first” to provide aid into the country.

The result is Pacific island governments walking a careful line between the two superpowers and hoping they can remain friends with both.

“The United States, our first and foremost ally, is essential to our nation-building process,” says. David W. Panuelo, President of the Federated States of Micronesia in an email, before he adds: “But so, too, is our Great Friendship with the People’s Republic of China.”….PACNEWS

Rimon Rimon in Kiribati, Talaia Mika in Samoa, Dorothy Wickham in the Solomon Islands, Slone Fred in Vanuatu, Thomas Manch in Wellington contributed to this story.

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