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Consultant says Chinese influence not likely to diminish

By Bill Bainbridge

MELBOURNE, Australia (Radio Australia, Feb. 29, 2012) – China has given the Cook Islands a grant of $3 million, in a move likely to renew concerns by some Western powers over its growing regional influence.

The three million dollar Economic and Technical Cooperation Agreement was signed last week between Prime Minister Henry Puna, Minister of Foreign Affairs Tom Marsters and visiting Chinese envoy, Li Qiangmin.

Acting Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Immigration Myra Patai says the no-strings-attached money will likely be put to the Cook's National Sustainable Development Plan.

"They're to be used on future projects that the Cook Islands may decide on, and most probably be projects that align with our national priorities," she said.

"They leave it entirely up to us to decide how to priorities it. This is not the first time that a grant like this has been given."

New Zealand based security consultant Paul Buchanan says China's influence in the Pacific has expanded in the last decade through the deployment of grants like the one provided to the Cook Islands.

"Chinese investment and aid is not conditional on any good governance clauses, or any transparency protocol," he said.

"They will give money where money will serve them best. The Chinese are not interested in the nature of governance in the region – they're interested in returns-on-investment."

But Graeme Smith from the Chinese Studies Centre at the University of Sydney warns, "The Pacific looms decidedly not large on the radar of people in Beijing," he said.

"Often, who is pushing it is contracting companies that have based themselves in the Pacific, and it's obviously in their interests that the money arrives... to fund their infrastructure projects. So it's often pushed, rather not from the top down, but from the bottom up."

Last week Fiji's interim prime minister Commodore Frank Bainimarama said China's influence was rising in the Pacific because of Australia's neglect of its relationships.

Paul Buchanan says the United States is clearly worried about China's assertiveness in the Pacific.

But he says, regardless of the U.S. re-engagement with the Pacific, China will continue to keep its checkbook open.

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