A better understanding of the Pacific, and New Zealand’s place in it, is emerging, writes Victoria University’s China expert Dr Jason Young
Premier Li Keqiang’s recent visit to New Zealand saw a slew of new agreements between New Zealand and China, including two that provide a framework for promoting New Zealand-China cooperation in the Pacific. While these two agreements received little attention in the media, their long-term significance for New Zealand’s Pacific engagement should not be understated.
China’s engagement with Pacific Island Countries (PICs) has grown rapidly over the last decade. It is the third, soon to be the second, largest aid contributor in the region, the second largest trade partner and has an impressive diplomatic presence with those countries recognising the People’s Republic. Even for countries that recognise Taiwan, China remains a significant economic partner.
As Chinese commerce, trade and investment in PICs has grown, so too has a new era of Chinese migration and tourism to the islands. China, like India, the European Union and Japan, now hosts its own annual regional engagement forum with the Pacific, the China-Pacific Islands Countries Economic Development and Cooperation Forum, as well as contributing to the Pacific Island Forum, the Melanesian Spearhead Group and the Pacific Islands Development Forum.
China has engaged with PICs under the principle of South-South cooperation. Its aid is focused heavily on infrastructure development and comes primarily in the form of concessional loans negotiated bilaterally with recipient countries, with the infrastructure delivered by Chinese construction teams. The loans are provided with ‘no strings attached’ but strict adherence to the One China principle. Some Pacific countries, such as Tonga, have become heavily indebted.
This approach differs considerably to that of New Zealand and Australia, which have tended to focus on building resilient political institutions and societies, on conditional aid packages and on grants instead of loans, a process that has at times frustrated some PICs.
As in other parts of the world, the newfound Chinese interest in the Pacific has stimulated a lot of debate. China’s South-South development policy has given PICs access to funds not constrained by the type of criteria traditional donors insist upon. The Pacific has warmly welcomed trade, investment and aid from China. At the same time, some activities have led to dislocation and dissatisfaction. China’s approach to aid delivery and local Chinese communities’ domination of certain sectors of Pacific island economies have bred criticism, social tension and at times even resentment.
In this context, it is positive to see Chinese scholars and policymakers focusing on learning more about the Pacific, on how their role is viewed in the Pacific and on how their activities relate to existing engagements. For example, Beijing Foreign Studies University recently announced new language courses in Māori, Samoan and Tongan. Guangdong University of Foreign Studies has established a programme to bring officials from the Pacific to take part in training programmes in China. Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou has established a Center for Oceania Studies and publishes an annual handbook on Oceania as part of the popular Blue Book series.
New Zealand is also taking an active lead in this space. Two years ago, the New Zealand Contemporary China Research Centre initiated a conference in Apia with the National University of Samoa and Sun Yat-sen University, from which came a book edited by Michael Powles, China and the Pacific: The View from Oceania. This effort was reciprocated last year when Guangdong University of Foreign Studies brought a range of scholars to Guangzhou to continue the discussions, and earlier this month when the Center for Oceania Studies hosted a conference on Promoting Cooperation in the Pacific.
To avoid potential rivalries and to seek a Pacific way for promoting cooperation between internal and external actors, Pacific nations will need to continue to bring together the relevant actors and to express their views on issues from development aid to climate change, fisheries management, military cooperation and regional governance.
These discussions represent a sea change in attitudes toward the study of the Pacific in China as well as the beginnings of a more active form of partnership with traditional actors like New Zealand. The conversations are, as should be expected, not always easy. There are a number of differing views on Chinese engagement in the Pacific, in China and on New Zealand’s and Australia’s presence in the region. But through these discussions a better understanding of the Pacific, and New Zealand’s place in it, is emerging. This is just the beginning of an ongoing process.
China’s interests and engagement in the Pacific are not fleeting and New Zealand and Australia remain deeply committed to their home region. In order to coordinate activities, to avoid potential rivalries and to seek a Pacific way for promoting cooperation between internal and external actors, Pacific nations will need to continue to bring together the relevant actors and to express their views on issues from development aid to climate change, fisheries management, military cooperation and regional governance.
It is in this context that we can understand the importance of the two agreements signed during Premier Li’s visit. The first was on Strengthening Exchanges on International Development Cooperation. This follows the agreement signed in 2007 to hold annual New Zealand-China Pacific consultations at senior-official level on both development and foreign policy issues. This has allowed New Zealand to enter into innovative trilateral development partnerships with China such as the Te Mato Vai project in Rarotonga.
The second agreement was a Fisheries Communiqué that establishes a high-level framework for cooperation with China on sustainable fisheries management in the Pacific. This is a key regional issue with significant infringements on Pacific countries’ exclusive economic zones and illegal fishing diminishing one of the Pacific’s most precious resources. Creating a sustainable fishing industry respected by the large external fishing nations such as China is key for the Pacific maintaining and managing this resource. This agreement is one small step toward achieving that goal.
Finally, the recent Center for Oceania Studies conference in Guangzhou focused on the important issue of regional cooperation in the Pacific, questioning not only China’s role in the region but also that of New Zealand and Australia.
Our participation in the conference opened a discussion of the Pacific Island Forum, regional leadership and regional identity. Scholars raised the question of how best to reform the post-forum dialogues to better promote Pacific voices and affairs and to coordinate an increasingly busy set of new and old relationships.
Here, two trends should be central: the increasing confidence, independence and voice of Pacific island nations and the growing role in the Pacific of newly industrialised economies such as China.