Questions Asked About Chinese Gifts To Cook Islands

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Will machinery be maintained, what is expected in return

By Phillipa Webb

RAROTONGA, Cook Islands (Cook Islands News, Feb. 3, 2015) – In the wake of more than $6 million [US$4.4 million] worth of heavy machinery being handed over to the Cook Islands by the Government of China last week, questions are being asked about the motives behind the generous gifts.

Democratic Party MP Tama Tuavera is asking whether the machines, which will all be sent to the outer islands, will be well looked after or will end up as rusting eyesores, like some previously-donated machinery.

And he says while Prime Minister Henry Puna claims the country isn’t giving away anything for nothing in return for the gifts, the Cook Islands will eventually have to pay for its ‘free lunch’.

The Cook Islands has benefitted considerably from Chinese government handouts, with the Chinese ambassador to the Cook Islands, Wang Lutong, last week attending a handover ceremony for $10.4 million [US$7.6 million] worth of heavy machinery and pearl industry equipment at the Punanga Nui market. Most of the machinery was manufactured by Chinese manufacturer LiuGong.

Although Infrastructure Cook Islands has said a management plan is in place to look after the equipment, only time will tell if it will withstand harsh conditions on the outer islands.

In 2010, 25 new tractors paid for with a Chinese grant were provided to each of the 24 electorates in the Cook Islands, while one remained with the Ministry of Agriculture. Since then, many of the machines have reportedly rusted and fallen apart.

For more than a decade the Chinese government has been extremely generous to the Cook Islands, gifting the Ministry of Justice Building, the Police National Headquarters and helping to build the Telecom Sports Arena. But the standard of construction of these buildings has been revealed to be poor and incapable of resisting tropical weather conditions. All three buildings leak and have components that are rusting. They are scheduled to be repaired with $800,000 [US$582,000] from the latest Budget. In November Cook Islands Investment Corporation chief executive officer Tamarii Tutanga said a proposal had been submitted for repairs and improvements to be made in the third or fourth quarter of 2014/2015.

Tutanga said the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Immigration was in discussions with the Chinese government to provide the money appropriated in the budget. Work would not start on repairing the buildings until this request was accepted.

CINews could not obtain more up-to-date information from Tutanga before going to print.

In a post-Cabinet press conference on Tuesday last week, Prime Minister Henry Puna was quick to dismiss questions about Chinese aid, simply stating that it reflected the special bilateral relationship between the two countries.

"I want to put my people’s minds at ease and say that we are not giving away anything for these gifts and will continue to support China’s aspirations to help us."

But Tuavera said there was never a ‘free lunch’ when it came to doing business with China.

"The ambassador was scheduled to meet with the Minister of Seabed Minerals and Natural Rescources Mark Brown during his visit, so now I think it is time to pay for the free lunch."

Tuavera claimed the gifted equipment was ‘all show’.

He said he was concerned the machines would not be maintained and that there would not be adequate diesel on the outer islands to even keep them running.

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