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China's 'friendship' in the Pacific draws thanks and suspicions
Category: Education News
Published: 21 February 2013
South China Morning Post
Monday, Feburary 18, 2013
By Julian Ryall
China has been pouring money into Micronesia since 1989
The road that runs from Kolonia's crumbling port into the jungle interior of the Pacific island Pohnpei is lined by single-storey shacks with corrugated iron roofs, a cinder-block supermarket and stores selling a paltry selection of CDs, cold drinks and the colourful dresses the local women favour.
Side by side with the ramshackle buildings that make up the largest town on the island, two modern structures of glass and steel stand out.
The administrative building of the Pohnpei State Government and the expansive headquarters of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission were built with funds provided by China.
Since Beijing established diplomatic relations with the Federated States of Micronesia, of which Pohnpei is a part, in 1989 it has provided more than US$80 million for construction and economic and technical co-operation.
And while that may not be a huge amount in global terms, it is for these islands, which had a GDP of just US$238 million in 2008, according to the CIA World Factbook. And the influence that is being sought in tandem with the aid is causing concern.
That concern is heightened as Beijing flexes its geo-political muscles in the Western Pacific and backs up its diplomatic claims to vast areas of the South China Sea and the Japanese-held Senkaku archipelago with a growing military presence.
Part-way between Guam and Hawaii, Beijing is not laying claim to sovereignty over Pohnpei but is aiming to win new friends in the government.
"The Chinese are into political issues here and they want to penetrate the political arena, and that is something we have to be very wary about," says Churchill Edward, chief of staff to the president of Micronesia.
"We know this is a strategic move - the US military is sure about that - and we know how strategically important these islands are. And that worries us because the Chinese think differently to what we are used to."
Kolonia, population about 6,000, was established by Spanish occupiers in 1887 - a stone wall surrounding the town baseball field remains as testimony to their presence - but they were replaced by German colonial masters and then the Japanese at the outbreak of the first world war. The forces of the Imperial Japanese Army were dislodged by the Americans, who provided aid after the second world war until Micronesia was granted independence in 1986.
Pohnpei, which was the capital of Micronesia before being replaced by Palikir in 1989, continues to receive aid from the US and Japan - both of which were heavily involved in the expansion of the island's airport, which opened in June - but both governments have their own national debts to worry about. Beijing, on the other hand, is investing heavily in its military and extending its reach.
Edward says the aid China has provided has not been "co-ordinated" and is simply a case of Beijing "throwing money around".
"They want to have influence in the Pacific and this is just one way to do it," he says, adding that Beijing is competing with Taiwan for diplomatic recognition by the Marshall Islands and Palau, two of just 23 nations that retain formal diplomatic ties with Taipei.
Naoyoshi Sasaki, the former resident representative of the Japan International Co-operation Agency in Pohnpei, says Beijing wants to "find its own style of doing things in the islands".
He says Japan did not believe there was demand for direct flights but the Chinese were happy because they wanted to have regular flights from Hong Kong and Shanghai for their people, who have new spending power.
"America's control of Guam has been the source of its control of the Western Pacific, but I think the US was seriously concerned about how the airport in Pohnpei was going to be used.
"When we sat down to discuss the project the Hawaii office of the Federal Aviation Administration, the agency which controls air space over the Pacific, asked us a lot of questions and asked why Japan was supporting this project," Sasaki says.
Washington's concerns for the central Pacific are partly a result of China's efforts to build a blue-water navy that will include at least two nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and associated battle fleets, as well as deploying more nuclear submarines and long-range aircraft.
Those fears were fanned in June when a policy paper drawn up for the People's Liberation Army proposed that China should go about "effectively protecting national interests" in areas of the Western Pacific and northern and central sectors of the Indian Ocean.
Beijing's 2009 defence white paper also emphasised a range of "new missions" to justify its outlays. Claiming that Beijing's strategic interests have expanded globally, all three branches of its military are seeking more money to radically improve their capabilities, including in "distant waters".
The islands of Micronesia already serve as a refuelling and trans-shipment hub for Chinese freighters operating in the central Pacific, and similar facilities could theoretically be extended to its fleet of maritime surveillance vessels and, ultimately, its naval units.
Zhang Weidong, the Chinese ambassador to Micronesia, says Micronesia and China are equals on the international stage and Beijing's involvement in construction and development projects is motivated purely out of a desire to "aid a friend in need".
He added that the two countries have a great deal in common - including a history of colonisation by outside nations.
"Our policy is that we should aid developing countries and that we should all learn from each other, we should all help each other and all respect each other," Zhang adds.
He says China has contributed to about 40 projects in the past 23 years, including the modern edifices in Kolonia, along with agricultural development.
Political relations also have grown, Zhang says, with all Micronesian presidents since independence visiting China, while high-ranking Chinese officials have come to Pohnpei for special occasions.
"We are both developing countries and we understand each other's needs because we have had similar experiences," Zhang says. "After the Opium Wars of 1840, China was occupied by foreign powers, the Europeans and the Japanese, and we remember history not for retaliation but to look to the future and prevent the suffering of our people. That is why we advocate peaceful development, peace, friendship and harmony."
The community-building efforts extend to increased tourism opportunities from China.
I think we worry too much about China wanting to control things and this is more a case of Beijing wanting to be recognised as a regional power
"Micronesia wants to have Chinese tourists as it will promote development and it is only five hours away," Zhang says.
"Some people say the local people don't want China to come here, but we are open-minded and glad to see that many countries are helping in this region, helping it to develop peacefully and harmoniously."
Others see the increasing Chinese presence rather differently, with one expatriate resident of Kolonia - who preferred not to be named - saying: "China is making a really big push to get in here, and that is a big worry. They want a foothold here and they want to kick the Americans out."
Carl Baker, an analyst with the Pacific Forum of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, says Beijing's efforts to access resources throughout the region should come as no surprise and that "the Pacific Ocean is big enough for everybody".
"I think we worry too much about China wanting to control things and this is more a case of Beijing wanting to be recognised as a regional power," he says. "I don't think China is interested in trying to control the Pacific, it only wants to exploit natural resources. I believe the US and other nations will be only too happy to share the burden of developing these islands with China."
Private Chinese money is also flowing into Pohnpei, with a beachfront parcel of land to the east of Kolonia earmarked for the island's first large resort development, including a casino.
And while no one in Micronesia wants China to replace the US, Japan and, to a lesser extent, Australia as the providers of aid, its cash is welcome.
Bermance Aldis, of the Micronesia Tourism Unit, says there are concerns over the regional powers jockeying for position.
"But that is not a problem for me, as long as they are promoting infrastructure for the lives of the people here, he says. "We don't want the Chinese to dominate, but we have to have support for our economy."