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Is it just extending a helping hand to needy countries or trying to gain influence in an unstable region?

TIME PACIFIC June 4, 2001 | No. 22

By Elizabeth Feizkhah

One after another, they are welcomed to Beijing with official speeches, photographed in warm handclasps with President Jiang Zemin or Premier Zhu Rongji.

Leaders of nations so small their entire populations would fit into Tiananmen Square are hailed as "old friends of China," feted with banquets and toasts, whisked about the country in personal jets.

In the past two years, the People’s Republic’s honored guests from Oceania have included the King, Queen and Crown Prince of Tonga; the President of the Federated States of Micronesia; the Prime Ministers of Samoa, Fiji and Vanuatu; the Vice President and Finance Minister of Kiribati; and the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Papua New Guinea.

There are unofficial welcomes too: the Foreign Minister of the Solomon Islands -- which recognizes Taiwan, not China -- made a quiet trip in October; a group of West Papuan separatists is to visit in June.

Economically ailing, politically unstable, and impatient with the tightening purse strings and preachy tone of Australia, New Zealand and the U.S., many of the Pacific’s island states are finding a new friend in Beijing. That’s only natural, says China’s ambassador to Fiji, Zhang Junsai: "China is a developing country, and its policy is to help other developing countries."

But some observers fear Pacific island leaders’ heads may be too easily turned by red-carpet treatment and no-strings aid grants. "The weakness of these countries creates real opportunities for rising powers like China to exercise more influence over their governments," says Ben Reilly, a political scientist at the Australian National University’s Centre for Development Studies.

Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Malaysia are also involved in Oceania, but China’s role is a thornier issue, Reilly says: "There’s the potential that in five or 10 years, we could have in our immediate neighborhood a collection of states that owe their primary allegiance to a country outside our alliance."

And one that’s in a distinctly assertive mood. Just five Pacific nations -- the Solomon Islands, Nauru, Tuvalu, the Marshall Islands and Palau -- maintain diplomatic ties with Taiwan. "In the near future," says Ting Yongkang, a research fellow at Chengchi University’s Institute of International Relations in Taipei, "China wants to seduce those countries away."

The Solomon Islands came close to switching last year; the Marshall Islands’ new government is thought to be wavering. Beijing has demanded that Taiwan be excluded from all activities of the Pacific Islands Forum, the region’s key political body. Says ambassador Zhang: "We don’t put our noses into other countries’ affairs. (Taiwan) is part of our internal affairs." But Beijing may have more in mind than isolating Taipei.

Since recovering Hong Kong in 1997, it has steadily intensified its campaign to become the heavyweight of the Asia-Pacific -- and to curb the political and military reach of the U.S. warns M. Osman Siddique, the U.S. ambassador to Fiji: "The Pacific is an area of influence that the Chinese are looking very seriously at dominating."

If that’s the case, the People’s Republic is taking its time. "China is playing quietly and trying not to be too aggressive," says a senior PNG. Defense Force officer. "It is saying, we have a lot in common, we understand your problems, how can we help?"

Beijing’s aid is modest (total figures are not published), but it’s deployed for high PR impact.

China built the government offices in Samoa and the Parliament in Vanuatu, and gave a ferry to Kiribati and cargo boats to Micronesia; on the drawing board is a Foreign Ministry building in Port Moresby and a stadium in Suva for the 2003 South Pacific Games.

China also builds roads, provides engineers and agriculturists, and donates cash (PNG got $5 million when the kina plunged last year). But because its government is not accountable to voters, says an Australian Foreign Affairs official, "China has a freedom of action that Australia, New Zealand and the U.S. simply do not have."

Unlike them and unlike the International Monetary Fund and World Bank -- Beijing does not insist that aid recipients carry out political or economic reforms. Says former Vanuatu P.M. Barak Sope: "There are fewer ties attached to what (the Chinese) give."

After last year’s Fiji coup attempt, Australia, New Zealand and the U.S. cut back on aid. China increased it. "They came in with a suitcase full of cash and ideas," says ambassador Siddique. "They filled the gap right away."

Aid yields goodwill, but China is also investing for profit. Chinese state and semi-private enterprises currently have more than 880 labor and construction contracts under way in the Pacific. They are buying, or investing in, plantations, garment factories, fishing and timber-cutting licenses.

In Fiji, says Siddique, "Chinese newcomers" are acquiring farms and shops from Indians leaving the country. (The influx has raised eyebrows, says Ron Crocombe, who prepared a security report for the Pacific Islands Forum last year: "Some people are asking whether this build-up of Chinese citizens, which is going on throughout the region, is covertly supported by Beijing to boost the Chinese presence.")

China’s trade with Pacific island states is small -- about $300 million last year but it has quadrupled since 1998. This year China offered the Pacific Islands Forum $1 million to help it set up a trade office in Beijing. To Vanuatu’s Sope, the interest of Asian nations is a godsend for a region that badly needs investment.

"We see China as a valuable neighbor," he says. "It’s a huge market. It’s not far away like Europe. And they are willing to invest in this country on a large scale."

On a smaller scale, China is also assisting the region’s three regular military forces. Since late 1998, when Tonga dumped Taiwan in favor of Beijing, senior military officers from Tonga and China have exchanged visits, and the Chinese have agreed to provide about $500,000 worth of tents, uniforms, gym equipment and martial arts training.

Opposition MP Akilisi Pohiva, concerned that China could soon dominate Tonga’s economy, says friends in the military might make it easier "for the Chinese government to intervene to protect the growing number of Chinese people here."

Beijing has been providing the Fiji Military Forces with basic supplies since 1995; according to Chief of Staff Colonel Ratu George Kadavulevu, "the tents used during the May 19 (coup) crisis were given by the Chinese government." After the coup, when Fiji’s traditional allies pulled back from defense cooperation programs, China offered a further $800,000 in aid, including computers and a gymnasium. It also trains selected Fijian officers at its National Defense Academy in Beijing.

"Remembering Tiananmen Square," says Stanley Simpson, assistant director of the Pacific Concerns Resource Centre in Suva, "one wonders what the People’s Liberation Army is teaching the Fiji officer corps about state relations with civil society."

Soon after ending a flirtation with Taiwan, PNG last year signed an agreement with China under which its ragtag army is to receive about $500,000 worth of tents, uniforms, and medical equipment and training.

"We promote defense ties as part of friendly relations," says Ambassador Zhang. But to others, military gifts and gestures like inviting Free Papua Movement rebels to visit Beijing are prompted by more than charity.

George Friedman, director of the U.S.-based civilian intelligence organization Stratfor, says China’s moves in the region should be seen as logical aspects of a multilayered, and constantly evolving, foreign policy. "Do (the Chinese) want simply to have friendly relations?" he says. "Do they want to worry the Australians? Do they want some intelligence sources in these countries? Do they want to have some people who would join a guerrilla force against the government if that were needed? To any one of these questions, the answer is yes." To the last three of them, says Zhang, the answer is "absolute nonsense. Look at our history in this region over the past 25 years. You cannot find any strategic purpose in the activities of China."

Maybe, but one short-term goal might be to sideline Taiwan. Another is to build an "islands bloc" at the United Nations that, with other developing nations, will support China. As well, says Friedman, China may be seeking a secure foothold in a region that would become strategically critical if relations with the U.S. deteriorated. The Pacific islands sprawl across the sea lanes between America and Asia. "The Chinese have no (ocean-going) navy," says Friedman. "They do have excellent anti-ship missiles. A Tomahawk-style cruise missile is about six feet long. It has a range of about 1,000 miles. If the Chinese were to place these missiles on a number of islands and U.S. carriers came sailing through from Pearl Harbor, things could get very nasty."

China is said to be interested in developing a space warfare capability. In January, an article in the People’s Liberation Army newspaper Jiefangjun Bao advocated the use of anti-satellite weapons "to strike the enemy’s (the U.S.’s) enormously expensive yet vulnerable space systems." Several Pacific nations hug the Equator, the ideal zone for launching rockets and "parking" satellites in geo-stationary orbit.

China maintains a satellite-tracking station on Tarawa atoll, in Kiribati. Defense experts have speculated that the base could be used to monitor U.S. missile tests in the nearby Marshall Islands or assist a future space warfare effort, but China denies it has any military function.

The U.S. has raised no objection to the Tarawa base; nor do China’s broader activities in the Pacific seem to have stirred much fuss among officials in Washington, Canberra or Wellington.

In Suva, however, ambassador Siddique is concerned by this apparent insouciance. "Since the cold war ended, we have more or less relaxed here," he says. "We need to pay a bit more attention in this Pacific arena. We are not going to give up our principles, but at the same time we have to figure out ways that we don’t let (the Chinese) have free run of the place."

Australia and New Zealand are heavily involved in the South Pacific -- they are among the islands’ biggest aid donors and trading partners. The Australian Foreign Affairs official says Canberra is aware of a "steady increase" in Chinese activity in the Pacific, but adds: "We are not in a position to dictate to the governments in this region what they should and should not do."

What Pacific islands governments do has seldom been of much concern to their larger neighbors. But an attentive China has given them respect and largess, thus laying the foundations for friendship and power. It could prove to be a fickle attachment, an enduring partnership or a more familiar pattern of dependency.

Says the PNGDF officer: "Everyone is looking with anxiety to China to see what it will do next." While the region’s traditional friends sit on their hands, China is quietly planting the seeds of future influence in a region that increasingly appears up for grabs.

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