The Guardian • Issue #2012

By engaging with China, Pacific countries seek their own paths out of poverty

Part 1

Vanuatu’s independence day. Photo: Graham Crumb/ (CC BY-SA 3.0)

From 24th May to 4th June, 2022, China’s highly experienced Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, and a large delegation visited eight Pacific countries in person, as well as two by video-conference. The visit did not come out of the blue, for China (PRC) has been building relations with these countries for quite some time. Preparations for such a visit require a significant lead time, as well as detailed planning. Thirty-six concrete agreements with ten countries were signed on Wang Yi’s trip, but these were by no means the first. Although some countries have relations with China that go back decades, a key turning point was the agreement between ten Pacific state leaders and the Chinese President at the APEC leaders conference in November 2018. Since then, more and more agreements have been made in many areas, from trade, through infrastructure, to – most importantly – environmental protection and climate change.

Not unexpectedly, there has been much brouhaha among those who – in a paternalistic manner – see the Pacific countries as “one big family” or “our backyard.” But I am not interested here in the misrepresentations from Australia, New Zealand, or the USA, which have – as observers point out – been scaling back their already minimal engagement. The key question is: what do Pacific countries themselves think of such developments?

For background research, I read well over 100 articles from the local presses in these countries, along with statements from government websites. It is not possible here to address adequately each country visited by Wang Yi’s delegation: Solomon Islands, Kiribati, Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, and Timor-Leste, along with video conferences with the leaders of the Cook Islands and Niue. So I have selected four of these, seeking to give an impression of what people think.

To begin with the largest country, PNG. A country with very ancient human presence, going back tens of thousands of years, PNG was divided between the German and British empires from 1884. Australia took over colonial control from 1914 to 1975. This “contribution” has ensured that PNG remained extremely poor, with almost half of the population living at subsistence levels.

Immediately after independence in 1975, PNG established diplomatic relations with the PRC. As Prime Minister James Marape observed in June 2022, the “China-PNG relationship is as solid and strong as ever since 1976,” and this relationship cannot compromised or sabotaged “as it is a very important relationship.” More recently, the “China model” for lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty attracted PNG’s interest. Stressing that they are concerned with economic development (and not political or security ties), PNG joined the Belt and Road Initiative in 2018, and signed up to the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). The results are already apparent, with the construction of roads, bridges, universities, hydropower stations, and the state grid. Many other spheres have also developed, in terms of education, cultural exchange, green development, and – most importantly for a country with an inadequate medical system – medical equipment and expertise. Does all this mean that PNG is mired ever deeper in debt? Since PNG has a favourable trade balance with China, its primary trading partner, it sees these developments and economic benefits as a means to move away from borrowing or aid, not to go deeper into debt. It should be no surprise that throughout the many, many articles and letters to the editor in PNG newspapers, the tone on PNG-China relations is distinctly positive.

Turning to Vanuatu, it was first settled by Lapita peoples from the northern Philippines 3000 years ago. It was claimed by Spain (1606), France (1768), and then “shared” by the French and British from 1906 as “New Hebrides.” As with other Pacific countries, such as the Solomon Islands, half of the population was seized by force for “blackbirding” in the nineteenth century, and colonial rule was exceedingly corrupt, with frequent and often violent resistance. Independence was finally achieved in 1980.

Since China was one of the first countries in the UN to advocate for Vanuatu’s independence, the latter established diplomatic relations with the PRC in 1982. In 2019, the relationship was elevated to a comprehensive strategic partnership. By the time Wang Yi’s delegation arrived in June 2022, the relationship between the two countries was already deep and long-lasting. The government website has versions in English, French, Spanish, and Chinese. From 2020, Mandarin began to be taught as a second language in schools. The main newspaper, The Daily Post, has a whole section on Chinese news in Mandarin. When reading some of the English items, one is struck by the way that the shared experience of being developing countries provides a deep connection between Vanuatu and China. As with PNG, there have been person-to-person meetings between the two countries’ leadership, and in 2019 Vanuatu signed up to the BRI, along with a host of other agreements. Benefits have been seen in fundamental ways, such as safe drinking water, wharves, road rehabilitation, educational construction, tourism (with a pause from 2020 to 2022), and processing for agricultural and fishing products. Ni-Van students are completing studies in China and returning to contribute with their newly acquired expertise. As a small country subject to frequent natural disasters, Vanuatu has a National Sustainable Development Plan: 2016-2030, also known as The People’s Plan 2030. This plan seeks to lift Vanuatu out of the category of a “Least Developed Country” (LDC). Central to this plan are robust measures for dealing with climate change. Simply put, China is meeting this development need as a priority. That said, Vanuatu pursues a non-aligned foreign policy and does not take sides. As a letter to the editor puts it, “the xenophobic rhetoric that comes out of the US regarding China isn’t something we should adopt.” Who calls the shots for any engagement with Vanuatu? As Foreign Minister Ralph Regenvanu observed already in 2019: “Vanuatu’s own national interests are paramount in determining our relations with the international community and other states.”

What is it like for Vanuatu to engage directly with the Communist Party of China? Foreign Minister Regenvanu makes this fascinating observation: “The party-to-party relationships between the Communist Party of China and many of the key political parties in Vanuatu, whilst unheard of in the history of our relations with our more traditional partners, attest to a relationship that traverses differences in political ideologies and in cultural and bureaucratic norms, and is an interesting ‘value-add’ to the relationship of many of our leaders with China.”

Next week part two on Fiji and Micronesia.
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