Beijing has long sought a close relationship with the island nations of the South Pacific but in return for money and recognition, some of the most economically and environmentally vulnerable on earth may have surrendered more than they bargained for.
When a Chinese airliner filled with police landed in the South Pacific nation of Fiji last August, there was an air of the familiar about it. The scene was reminiscent of colonial days when imperial powers dispatched gunboats to put down restless islanders. That had happened in 1898 when Britain and the U.S. allied for the first time ever to bombard Samoans and take control of the island. This time the Chinese airliner represented a new power — one that spoke to Beijing’s increasing influence in the South Pacific.
While the Pacific nations get new buildings and capital from China, what Beijing and its government and businesses want from the relationship is less explicit. The Pacific has the world’s last rich fisheries and holds the promise of deep sea mining for minerals. China may also see the Pacific as an extension of its One Belt One Road plan — a near-global push for trade development built on huge infrastructure investments.
It may also seek a maritime silk road, which one Chinese commentator (CNTV) said possessed a “capacious exclusive economic zone, boasting fishing and marine resources with huge potential for exploitation.”
Perhaps there is no master-plan, but rather thousands of individual Chinese people seeking a better life in the South Seas, just as white beachcombers, planters and traders did a century earlier. Whatever the reason for the stepped up official and private investment drive from China, it could have vast implications for the geopolitics of the region — historically a diplomatic lake of the United States, Australia, New Zealand and France. China’s ambitions in Africa are well documented but the Pacific much less so.
Australia and New Zealand, the biggest countries in the South Pacific, have had their own wake up calls on China’s overt and covert intentions in their countries — making Canberra and Wellington realise that Beijing’s friendship may come with a price tag. So, it’s not just the island micro states that are rethinking the bargain.
‘Taiwan’ criminals in Fiji
Little independently verified information exists on what happened on August 4 at Nadi International Airport. But here’s what we know about that airliner with its inbound cargo of Chinese police in Fiji.
China Southern, which doesn’t normally fly to Fiji, parked the aircraft away from the international terminal. After dark, buses arrived at the side of the plane. Then, in ranks, dozens of Chinese Ministry of Public Security police officers filed out. Seventy-seven manacled people got out of the buses. Each had a black hood on their head and wore a blue shapeless vest. Each had a large yellow sticker with a red number on them, according to photographs from China’s Xinhua news agency. There was no resistance, according to a source who watched on, just as there was no evidence of any Fijian legal process.
Fiji’s media were silent. The country’s media is under heavy constraint under Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama — the latest in a series of ethnic Fijian military strongmen to take over the island chain. Some of this censorship is self-imposed, as the U.S. State Department Human Rights Report notes. Soon, however, social media carried pictures and video of the plane and a house where the 77 had been detained.
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Background Briefing show later reported the seized 77 were not hardened scam artists but teenage girls who were brought to Fiji as sex workers. Illegal prostitution and brothels are extensive in Fiji. However, the ABC claim has not been verified.
Several days later, Chinese state media (Xinhua) expressed national pride at the Fijian raid. There was lavish press and television coverage of the 77 prisoners arriving in China. They were said to be from a Taiwanese-led group that ran telephone scams from Kenya, Malaysia, Cambodia and Fiji.
Xinhua said Chinese police arrived two weeks before the plane and “they took action, destroying five dens, arresting the 77 and confiscating equipment, including mobile phones, computers and bank cards.”
Xinhua said “it was the first time for Chinese police to bring back so many suspects from an Oceanian country.”
Fiji sovereignty or its legal process was not mentioned.
‘Under what law were [Chinese police] allowed to come and operate in Fiji?’ – lawyer
Fiji Police Commissioner Sitiveni Qiliho told the Fiji Sun at the time that police “could not release any information about the covert operation.”
Then in a joint statement with the Chinese Embassy in Suva, he said Fiji police and immigration had facilitated the investigation over “alleged breaches in visa conditions in accordance with relevant laws and regulations of Fiji.”
The Fiji 77 have yet to be tried in China, but 85 people convicted of similar style operations in other countries, including 44 Taiwanese, were sent to jail in December for 14 to 15 years (ABC).
Fiji lawyer Aman Ravindra Singh later told the ABC’s Background Briefing that the deportation had serious implications, saying Chinese police officers working in the city of Lautoka, was “a direct violation” of Fijian sovereignty.
“Under what law were [Chinese police] allowed to come and operate in Fiji?” he asked. “For mighty China to march its police up and down the streets of Fiji … This is so unreal. Almost like there had been an invasion of our jurisdiction.”
China pays the Pacific pipers
Fiji may have had little choice. Under an aid program, China gave Fiji US$360 million between 2006 and 2015 (Lowy Institute) and offered legitimacy to the Bainimarama government, despite his execution of the latest of several military coup in 2006.
As New Zealand and Australia imposed embargoes to help try to push Fiji back to democracy, Bainimarama opted for a “Look North” policy (American Association of Geographers), favoring closer ties with China (CCTV).
It’s not just small and frail states China targets to persuade: Australians and New Zealanders have had reason to be startled and start to push back against Beijing’s game of influence both overt and covert.
An obscure academic paper from New Zealand has became an internet sensation. Its author said it was a case study in how New Zealand is being targeted by China’s new influence agenda.
Canterbury University political scientist Anne-Marie Brady‘s paper, “Magic Weapons: China’s political influence activities under Xi Jinping” awoke the nation to the extent of Beijing’s influence.
Australia too has been made aware of the risks posed by Chinese investment and the influence that comes with it. In 2015, Australia’s Northern Territory announced that its Port of Darwin was to be leased in a $506 million deal to Chinese-owned Landbridge Corp for 99 years. That the port was a vital part of the Australia-United States military alliance seemed all but overlooked by those negotiating the deal.
Australia and the United States had agreed to “enhanced naval cooperation across all domains. (ABC) “
Territorial tensions simmer north of Darwin in the South China Sea where China has effectively annexed and then militarized a chain of atolls and reefs adjacent to its “nine-dash-line” zone of interest. U.S. Marines are more or less permanently based in Darwin (Lowy Institute).
Then-President Barack Obama was dismayed over the idea of a Chinese investment in Darwin, telling Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull “let us know next time.”
Matters worsened last June when the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Four Corners revealed that the Chinese Communist Party was what Duncan Lewis, the head of Australia’s peak intelligence agency ASIO, had in mind when he warned that espionage and foreign interference was occurring on an unprecedented scale.
Four Corners said its own investigation had found a concerted campaign by the Chinese government and its proxies to infiltrate the Australian political process to promote its own interests. Targets included universities, student and community groups, Chinese language media and some leading politicians.
Peter Jennings, the head of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, told the program that Chinese “naked influence buying, is something, which is damaging to Australia’s political system.”
On December 11 opposition Labor Party Senator Sam Dastyari resigned from parliament over links to Chinese Communist Party-aligned interests in Australia. One of those links was Huang Xiuangmo of the Australian Council for the Promotion of the Peaceful Reunification of China. He gave hundreds of thousands of dollars in political donations but when the Labor Party said it supported Australia being able to conduct freedom of navigation operations in the South China Seas, Huang cancelled a $400,000 donation.
Dastyari backed Huang, saying Australia shouldn’t meddle with China’s activities in the South China Sea. Then it was revealed Dastyari had given counter-surveillance advice to Huang, telling him his phone was likely to have been bugged by intelligence services.
Prime Minister Turnbull accused him of betraying Australia’s interests. Turnbull hit out at Beijing, speaking in Mandarin to declare he would stand up for Australians by bringing in tougher foreign interference laws and declared: “There has been foreign interference in Australian politics.”
Beijing did not take kindly to the remarks, saying Turnbull had “poisoned” the atmosphere (ABC).
A ‘person from China’
In 2017, China’s influence game in New Zealand revealed a touch of the Manchurian Candidate. It was discovered that a member of parliament from the then governing National Party, Yian Yang, had been a trainer in a Chinese spy school before immigrating to the South Pacific country. He had worked with Chinese military intelligence for 15 years. He denounced “any allegations about my loyalty to New Zealand. (New Zealand Herald)”
The Herald revealed Yang had been lobbying ministers to overturn a national security block on another China-born job applicant taking up a sensitive position in the military. The unnamed person had failed a Security Intelligence Service briefing. The Herald quoted an unnamed source familiar with vetting saying there were not aware of anyone born in China ever being granted clearance.
The government did not remove the security block.
‘Getting New Zealand to …stop spying on China…would be a major coup’ – academic
Foreign Minister Winston Peters called for an inquiry: “These are serious allegations that need to be investigated.”
The now-governing New Zealand Labour Party includes in its MP ranks Raymond Huo, who said in 2009 that he was a “person from China” and would promote China’s Tibet policies to the New Zealand Parliament.
Anne-Marie Brady‘s paper made news far beyond academic circles with its explanation of why China sought influence in New Zealand and its neighborhood. Beijing, she wrote, was particularly keen to focus on Wellington because of its historic responsibility for the defence and foreign affairs of three other territories in the South Pacific: the Cook Islands, Niue, and Tokelau.
Alliance with the United States
New Zealand is also a claimant state in Antarctica and one of the closest access points to it. Of interest to China is New Zealand’s membership of the UKUSA intelligence agreement, the Five Power Defense Arrangements with the United States, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom often called the “Five Eyes” and the unofficial ABCA grouping of militaries, as well as being a NATO partner state.
“Breaking New Zealand out of these military groupings and away from its traditional partners, or at the very least, getting New Zealand to agree to stop spying on China for the Five Eyes, would be a major coup for China’s strategic goal of becoming a global great power,” Brady wrote.
New Zealand has actively accepted China’s soft power activities and political influence, she said.
“Successive New Zealand governments have followed policies of attracting Beijing’s attention and favor through high profile support for China’s new economic agendas.”
As many as 200,000 ethnic Chinese live in New Zealand, which has a population of 4.5 million. Most live in Auckland, the commercial capital.
Chinese consular authorities kept a close eye on the community, Brady said, noting it was remarkable given that there is a diversity of people of Chinese origin in New Zealand from those who came a century or more ago to work in gold fields and more recent immigrants from mainland China and Taiwan.
“If they wish to be part of a Chinese-speaking environment in New Zealand, then they now have to put up with China’s guiding of political activities within the ethnic Chinese community and tightened censorship on political issues in New Zealand,” she said.
Brady said under normal circumstances the politician Yang, who has the background in the Chinese security services, “would not have been given a New Zealand security clearance to work on foreign affairs.” He was on the parliamentary select committee for foreign affairs for a time.
The depth of China’s influence showed in 2016 when under Prime Minister John Key, New Zealanders held a referendum on whether to change its flag. Yang was involved with a NZ$100,000 donation to support change to remove the colonial legacy of Britain’s Union Jack in the top-left corner of the New Zealand flag.
“The Chinese donors wanted the Union Jack removed from the New Zealand flag, because it reminded them of the history of British imperialism in China,” Brady wrote.
New Zealand kept its flag.
Soft loans with a hard message
China also bankrolls governments with soft loans which are now bringing some Pacific states, notably Papua New Guinea and Tonga, to the edge of bankruptcy (Pacific Island News Agency). Such interventions have the potential to destabilize the Pacific, according to a Australian Strategic Policy Institute report (SBS).
Beijing seldom publishes accurate data and what constitutes aid is ill-defined. The Lowy Institute, a liberal Australian think tank, publishes an occasional map that add up the sums. In its latest 2015 edition it said China had spent US$1.78 billion on 218 projects since 2006. Papua New Guinea received most, US$632.46 million, followed by Fiji.
The nature of the Fiji-China relationship was spelled out on China Central Television’s web service commentary by contributor Gu Jianjun, who noted that Fiji’s economy depended on investment from western countries.
“After the 2006 military takeover, western countries withdrew direct capital support from the government,” Gu wrote. “China beefed up its investment and support, helping Fiji rid itself of economic recession and winning favor with local people.”
Why China is in the South Pacific
China has a long history in the Pacific. Polynesians are descended from voyagers (National Geographic) who left Taiwan two to three thousand years ago. In the colonial era, China’s passion for bêche-de-mer (sea cucumber) and sandalwood helped underwrite 19th Century commerce and European colonialism. Chinese low paid laborers, then termed coolies, was shipped into Fiji, Samoa and Tahiti. With marriage to locals, small Chinese communities, grew in the Pacific (Victoria University). As it predated the 1949 founding of the communist People’s Republic of China, few of these overseas Chinese groups were loyal to Beijing.
A 2015 conference in Samoa on China in the Pacific, was opened by Samoa Prime Minister Tuila’epa Sailele who said singling out China as opposed to other nations investing or active in the region “creates an implicit impression that all is not quite what it seems and there are conspiracies afoot.” He dismissed this, but added size, wealth and military might did count.
Yu Chang Sen, of the National Center of Oceania Studies at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou set out the strategic thinking in a 2015 paper. He wrote that many in China saw the South Pacific as “the edge of the world… (with a) …marginal role in Chinese geostrategic thinking.”
However, China believed the United States had three offensive rings around China. The second ring was based on the major U.S. base at Guam and reaching through the Micronesian islands and parts of Polynesia, stretching 18,500km to Australia and New Zealand. Yu said the ring sought to “restrain the global freedom of maneuver by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy.”
He wrote that China wanted to end this U.S domination as sealanes across the Pacific were important to the country’s future. Yu, sounding like an old imperial planner, said the Pacific islands had “many natural harbors” that could be developed with Chinese help.
Chinese naval bases
There has long been talk of Chinese naval bases in the Pacific — Fiji, Tonga and even New Zealand. The closest currently to any kind of base is Suva, Fiji. The Chinese navy’s Yuanwang satellite tracking ships are often moored there. They regularly show up in photographs of the harbor. The large ships with arrays of exotic-looking satellite dishes also spend time in Papeete, the capital of Tahiti and Auckland, the commercial capital of New Zealand, suggesting they rest up where it is convenient rather than for any strategic reason (Author’s research).
Suva is a key port for China’s deep water fishing armada, the world’s largest (South China Morning Post). China’s new and powerful boats could, within a decade, fully exploit (Guardian) the US$3 billion a year Pacific tuna industry (Spinoff).
Since 2012, the Chinese Pacific fishing fleet has grown five times. Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission data shows 68 percent of the 480 registered longliners are Chinese. Most of the rest, flying Pacific flags, are Chinese-owned. Twenty-one percent of the Pacific purse seiners are Chinese and their numbers are growing rapidly. The sheer size of the Chinese fleet now, means the country is among the biggest voices on multinational bodies that control access to tuna.
The Federated States of Micronesia, is a key state on the “second ring” China believes encircles it. Chuuk atoll, formerly Truk, is four hours flight from China and was Japan’s main Pacific naval base during World War Two. Under a compact with the United States, Micronesia receives extensive aid in exchange, partly, for denying access to its ports to other navies. The compact ends in 2023, unless renegotiated.
That China is already engaged in Micronesia and offers extensive infrastructure aid could be a bargaining chip by the Micronesian authorities to get the U.S. to sign a compact. Or it might reflect Chinese military strategy.
David Morris, the Pacific Islands Trade and Investment Commissioner in China, wrote for The Diplomat magazine that it was “not so much fear of China as it is concern about a potential threat to the islanders’ way of life.”
There was “a well-founded fear of masses of tourists suddenly arriving in the absence of sufficient safeguards for the environment.”
Tonga’s village of love
‘China might write off your loan…but Tonga must agree to have a naval base’ – Tongan politician
Tonga, with a population of just 107,000 and one of the Pacific’s poorest countries, is heavily dependent on China. According to the Lowy atlas, Tonga received US$172.06 million in “aid” between 2006 and 2015. Tonga’s capital, Nuku’alofa (village of love) underscores the nature of Chinese aid. In 2006, the central business area was devastated by riots, partly political and partly criminal, with some violence aimed at Chinese-owned shops.
To rebuild the capital, China offered 440 million yuan (US$70 million) through the Export-Import Bank of China at an annual interest rate of two percent (Nikkei Asian Review). Soft loans from China now account for 64 percent of Tonga’s debt stock, or 43 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), according to Tonga Ministry of Finance data. Prime Minister ‘Akilisi Pohiva, 76, unsuccessfully tried to get the loans converted into grants. It’s inability to pay could threaten Tonga with bankruptcy.
While Tonga got new buildings, there was little else. China shipped its own workers to do the building. The buildings, such as new government headquarters opened last September, have a kind of Lego building block look about them, reflecting little of the Pacific culture of the city they’re built in.
China paid a grant of US$11 million to pay for it, but Tonga has to now fund the maintenance out of its own pocket, according to a diplomatic source spoken to by WikiTribune.
“China might say well we can write off your loan,” Pohiva told members of Auckland’s Tongan community in 2013 when he was opposition leader. “But Tonga must agree to have a Chinese naval base.” (Kaniva News)
As prime minister, Pohiva has occasionally modified that even if the base issue keeps recurring, Kaniva News, a New Zealand-based, Tongan publication reported.
Crime against Chinese nationals abroad angers Beijing. In March 2017 Pohiva met with the Chinese ambassador Huang Huaguang, who later issued a lengthy official statement reminding Tonga that “the safety situation of the Chinese community still faced many difficulties and challenges.” Crimes were happening frequently and “some brutal cases” were unsolved.
Pohiva told local media that the violence was Chinese on Chinese. He hinted that local Chinese businesses people were hiring hit men to attack their rivals. (Kaniva News)
China fills spaces others leave
‘Other countries are prepared to step into the vacuum of leadership that is left by America’ – Cook Islands PM
China’s biggest play in the Pacific is in Papua New Guinea — a mineral, timber and fisheries-rich nation. Much of its investment is not aid at all; it is copper, gold and fuel extraction. China has US$2.5 billion directly invested and trade is growing rapidly, according to PNG government statistics.
Port Moresby Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive David Conn says Chinese enthusiasm for investing in PNG contrasted with Australians’ view of the country’s economic and social prospects. “I say, well, look fellas, the pitch was yours and you left it.” (The Australian)
“At the moment, it’s easy to see that sadly, America is isolated and the other countries are prepared to step into the vacuum of leadership that is left by America.” (New Zealand Herald)
The Cook Islands, which has a population of 17,000 spread over an area of ocean the size of India, is dependent on China for most of its major new buildings — including the courthouse. Aid failures there have led China, for the first time, to coordinate its programme with New Zealand – traditionally the regional partner of the Cooks, according to the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
This might change after an unusually aggressive comment in the Cooks by New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters in January saying New Zealand would continue to give aid as it was aimed at ruling out the involvement of “less desirable” countries (Cook Island News). Radio New Zealand International reported Peters as saying if New Zealand didn’t give aid then other influences, which might be malignant, could fill the void. Peters named no country.
China’s presence has long been felt in Samoa. While aid from Beijing has been welcomed, the recent arrival of immigrants from China has been less so.
Several Samoan villages have banned Chinese businesses and the new migrants.
“Our concern is that if we allow foreign businesses to be established now, our future generations will not be able to have access to the land when they grow up because these foreigners would have taken them all,” Seve Luki, the pulenu’u or mayor of Iva, a village on Savai’i, told the Samoa Observer.
James Zhuang, spent US$28,000 getting a store ready in Moata’a village, only to learn on the day of opening, that the village council had banned Chinese from opening shops.
“I know I am a Chinese man,” said Zhuang, “and that is why the village does not allow me to open my store, yet other Samoans have opened up new shop in Moata’a. I will bring no harm to the village; I will abide by the rules and regulations of the village council.”
Pacific nations know what it’s like to be bit players in a drama of geopolitics. With independence in the 1960s and 1970s, Pacific states were caught up in the political tussle between the United States and the Soviet Union. Newly independent countries like Kiribati raised alarm with talk of Soviet bases there but nothing ever came of it (New York Times). When the Soviet Union disappeared in 1991, the new game for leaders was whether there was more money in recognizing Taiwan or China.
Today, six of the 20 states that recognize Taiwan are in the Pacific; Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Solomon Islands and Tuvalu. The other ten island members of the Pacific Forum recognize Beijing (as do Australia and New Zealand). While repeatedly stressing friendship, Beijing shows irritation over states recognizing Taiwan which it regards an inalienable part of the mainland.
Relationships have been at times fraught for several Pacific countries that recognize Taiwan.
Last November China told its tourist agencies (Hawaii Public Radio) to stop all flights to Palau after a state visit of the the President of Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen. The Palau Visitors Authority recorded 87,000 visitors from China last year. President Tommy Remengesau, who told reporters he has been working to reduce that surge of tourists, seemed unconcerned at the ban (Pacific Island Times).
The Solomon Islands recognizes Taiwan, but China stepped in when riots in the capital Honiara targeted ethnic Chinese (Pacific Islands Report). Locals were incensed at what they believed to be corruption and favoritism linking Solomon Island decision-makers and some newly arrived mainland Chinese. Beijing evacuated 310 Chinese to China. Even the Chinese media saw it as newsworthy that the Solomons didn’t have official diplomatic relations with China (China Daily).
One of the curiosities in the Pacific has been the Marshall Islands, population 53,000, which, despite recognizing Taiwan, now has an astonishing US$3.6 billion worth of Chinese ships registered to fly the Marshallese flag, according to the Pacific Islands Trade Investment Commission. Some of those ships have been exposed by satellite monitoring supplying oil to North Korea in breach of United Nations sanctions. (Hellenic Shipping News).
Brutally pragmatic flag waving
If there is a common theme, it’s not necessarily military or even particularly colonial; it’s that Beijing is being pragmatic in its own self interest. It’s helped by the fact that the previous big powers in the region — the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand — are diplomatically and in some cases militarily preoccupied elsewhere and unable to confront or otherwise counter China’s expansion.
This might be changing, as politicians, academics and journalists from outside the South Pacific begin to appreciate the scale of China’s Pacific ambitions — not to mention flying its police in when it feels like it.