Kua ‘shamed’ by late payday for landowners

In the Pacific, growing wariness of China

Capture 1
Samoa prime minister Fiamē Naomi Mataʻafa skipped a recent summit between Pacific Island leaders and China (AFP)

| Al Jazeera | Edited extracts

DELHI, INDIA - Flanked by senior diplomats in Beijing, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi addressed leaders from Pacific Island nations last October.

The president of Kiribati, prime ministers of Fiji, Tonga and Niue, and the foreign ministers of Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Federated States of Micronesia and Solomon Islands appeared in windows on a screen, their video summit meant to herald a new promise in China’s relations with their region.

But one leader stood Beijing up at what was the first-ever China-Pacific Island countries foreign ministers’ meeting.

Samoan prime minister Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, who is also the country’s foreign minister, skipped the summit and sent a junior representative.

The joint statement the participants issued at the end of the meet left out Samoa, a country of about 200,000 people.

The previously unreported snub was the latest evidence of tensions creeping into China’s ties with the sparsely populated Pacific Island nations, some of which are trying to reset economic relations with Beijing.

Since coming to power last July, Mata’afa — Samoa’s first female prime minister — has delivered on her party’s promise to halt a Chinese-backed port project, calling its $100 million price tag excessive for a country with a gross domestic product of just $800 million.

Her predecessor, Tuila’epa Sa’ilele Malielegaoi, had signed the deal for the port.

Capture 2
Honiara burns in late November riots (Job Rongo’Au Fuoo, ZFM Radio)

Some 3,200 kilometres west, the Solomon Islands were rocked by violence in late November amid lingering divisions over the country’s decision in 2019 to switch diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China.

Chinese-owned businesses in the capital Honiara were targeted by protestors from Malaita, the country’s most populous island, which had opposed the switch from Taipei to Beijing.

At the heart of the protests were perceptions that the national government was trying to topple the regional administration, said Peter Kenilorea Jr, an opposition member of parliament in the Solomon Islands.

“Across the Pacific Islands, I now have friends asking me why the Solomon Islands moved to China from Taiwan,” Kenilorea Jr, also a former United Nations diplomat, told Al Jazeera.

“They’ve had their own experiences with Beijing.”

Apart from Palau, Nauru, Marshall Islands and Tuvalu — all of which recognise Taiwan — the Pacific island nations have diplomatic ties with Beijing.

Since 2009, China has been the region’s second-largest lender behind the Asian Development Bank, loaning $1.34 billion to the Pacific Islands.

It owns a majority stake in multiple mining projects scattered across the islands. And for the past eight years, it has been a top trading partner for the region, neck-and-neck with Australia.

The pushback in Samoa and the unrest in the Solomon Islands reflect a broad rethink in the region over how countries should deal with Beijing, according to some analysts.

“There are certainly growing concerns in the Pacific about the nature of China’s engagement and the manner in which China pursues its interests in the region,” Anna Powles, a senior lecturer at the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at New Zealand’s Massey University, told Al Jazeera.

“This was reflected at the recent foreign ministers meeting.”

To be sure, the region’s countries still want to do business with China, said Jonathan Pryke of the Sydney-based Lowy Institute.

“The reality of what China delivers, and the costs, have made countries reassess that relationship,” he told Al Jazeera.

“The Pacific has wised up to China. They’re treating China like they would treat other partners, pushing back when needed.”

No country captures that shift more clearly than Samoa.

In 1976, the country was among the first in its region to establish diplomatic ties with communist China at a time most Pacific nations recognised Taiwan.

Today, Samoa is so economically dependent on China that it owes 40% of its external debt — about $160 million — just to Beijing, said Powles. The port project would have added to that debt.

It helps the region’s decision-making that Australia is stepping up to offer an alternative to Chinese investments.

In late October, Canberra bankrolled the bulk of a $1.6 billion deal for Telstra to buy Digicel Pacific, the largest telecommunications provider in Fiji, PNG, Vanuatu, Samoa, Tonga and Nauru.

“It’s a strategically vital company, and the idea is to block China from buying it,” said Pryke.

In December, Australia, the United States and Japan announced they would jointly fund an undersea cable bringing fast internet to Nauru, Kiribati and the Federated States of Micronesia.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, Australia had been a leading aid provider to the Pacific islands, from personal protective equipment and tests early in the crisis, to a $450 million commitment to provide vaccines across the region starting March last year.

New Zealand has also supplied vaccine doses to its smaller neighbours.

“Australia and New Zealand kept us afloat during the pandemic,” Robert Bohn Sikol, a former parliamentarian in Vanuatu, told Al Jazeera.

In contrast, recent research by the Lowy Institute, shows that China’s aid to the Pacific island states has declined since 2018, even though the pandemic gave donor nations a perfect platform to shower smaller countries with cash.

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken visited Fiji in February — the first trip by the top US diplomat in 37 years — and, among other things, announced that the US would set up an embassy in the Solomon Islands.

“The case of the Solomon Islands is a case of great power rivalry,” PNG political scientist Michael Kabuni told Al Jazeera.

The Pacific island nations have “mixed views” about the increased rivalry between the West and China over their region, said Sandra Tarte, an associate professor in international relations at the University of the South Pacific in Suva.

On the one hand, it gives the countries a bigger set of potential economic partners to choose from, and more negotiating strength.

Even as their concerns about China rise, the region’s countries don’t want to get dragged into a geopolitical tussle between Washington and Beijing, said Kenilorea Jr.

“You’ve got to remember — when two elephants fight, it is the grass that gets trampled,” he said.


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Chris Overland

Thanks for your comments Robert.

While I think that President Biden is well past his best, he has been able to wield the powers of his office quite effectively in relation to the war in Ukraine.

Donald Trump is an appalling man and it is a mercy that he is no longer President. Trump's 'gifts', such as they are, lie in being able to reflect back to people their worst selves.

In this particular case, his overt and repeatedly expressed admiration for Putin's 'genius' reveals a level of strategic insight and human empathy that falls far, far short of even the worst of his predecessors.

Happily, even some of Trump's supporters within the Republican party have quite explicitly endorsed President Biden's actions. Indeed, some of them are quite enthusiastic about removing Putin rather permanently from the international stage and not unduly concerned about the methods used.

With luck, both Trump and Putin will have passed into history well before the 2024 Presidential election.

Robert Wilson

"President Joe Biden is beset by the unfolding events, his own party's still serious divisions about the nature and extent of government in modern America and the rampant ultra-nationalist and proto fascist Trumpists who now dominate the once great Republic Party."

Really Chris, I would suggest having a geriatric president with oatmeal for brains through cognitive decline and incapable of any common sense or leadership is far more of a worry than fixation with Trump supporters.

Chris Overland

The idea that Pacific nations will not be dragged into the emerging great power conflict is risible. They are already involved and there is now no way out for them.

The war in Ukraine is clear and unequivocal evidence that the type of belligerent and militaristic autocracy that we all fervently hoped was dead and buried after World War 2 is alive and well.

Europe has awoken from its dream (or delusion) that 'ever closer union' through the EU would, somehow, inoculate Europe from future outbreaks of the rampant ultra nationalism that spawned two vicious world wars. That dream has now been shattered.

Meanwhile, an exhausted and divided USA is struggling to cope with the horrible implications of this most recent turn of events.

President Joe Biden is beset by the unfolding events, his own party's still serious divisions about the nature and extent of government in modern America and the rampant ultra-nationalist and proto fascist Trumpists who now dominate the once great Republic Party.

China too is caught in a dilemma. On the one hand it has found a friend in Vladimir Putin, a friendship that has no limits according to public statements by both parties. On the other hand, his hopeless misjudgements over the invasion of the Ukraine have revealed him to be a major liability, not an asset.

Worse still, he is now pressuring China for both economic and military aid as his army succumbs to the courageous defiance of Ukrainians. Putin seems willing to enter into effective vassalage to China in return for clinging to power.

If China gives Putin tangible support, then the USA and Europe will regard China as a de facto combatant in Ukraine and impose severe economic sanctions upon China. The implications of such action are very grave indeed for China and, in fact, all of us.

Make no mistake, the risk of Putin's Ukraine adventurism turning into a full scale global showdown between the world's democracies and the major autocratic powers is very real. The Chinese leadership knows this and will be asking itself if this is a risk it is prepared to take.

Its best bet is probably to try to act as an 'honest broker' in an effort to persuade Putin to enter into some sort of deal with the Ukrainian government whereby in return for assurances that it will not join NATO, the Russians will withdraw.

The problem is that Putin wants agreement to Russian control of the Crimea and other parts of Ukraine and the enraged Ukrainians are in no mood to agree to this.

This is all a hideous mess with no obviously plausible exit strategy.

What has this to do with the Pacific? It means that an already tense situation will become even more febrile.

The Pacific generally will be a major battleground in any conflict between a resurgent China and the western powers. World War 2 provides plenty of evidence about what this can mean for small nations caught up in such a struggle.

The world's democracies will begin to see any major economic deals now done with China as evidence of submission to vassalage with the attendant risk that small nations doing this may find life becoming far more difficult in a host of subtle and not so subtle ways.

Simultaneously, the world's democracies are likely to offer more and better support than has perhaps been the case in the past.

The supposed geo-political certainties of the past 30 years have been discarded or disrupted to a huge degree. There will be no return to the former status quo.

Pacific nations will need to engage in a major rethink and recalibration of their strategic approach to issues like commercial investment, foreign aid and, of course, military assistance.

Trying to playing China off against the western powers is a game requiring extreme sophistication, insight, tact and diplomacy and small Pacific powers need to ask themselves if they are able to do this. The price of failure in this game will assuredly be very high.

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