China has been inching along the Pacific, one thousand yuan at a time. Since 2006, the communist state has been splashing cash around the region. According to the think tank Lowly Institute for International Policy, Chinese aid to Pacific island states including Tonga, Samoa, Papua New Guinea, Cook Islands and Vanuatu is estimated to have reached $1.7 billion as of 2017. FSM alone has received $40.6 million in largess, including a Caroline Islands Air’s $3-million Harbin Y-12 airplane.
In its most recent show of lavish, if suspicious, generosity, China doled out $200,000 to Yap for the construction the Yap Sports Complex in preparation for the 2018 Micro Games.
On the global scale, China is speculated to soon dislodge the United States as the primary donor for developing countries as President Donald Trump has called for major cuts in foreign aid under his America First policy. According to a report published by AidData, a research lab based at the College of William & Mary, China has forked out $354.3 billion from 2000 to 2014 — a figure closing in on the $394.6 billion spent by the U.S. over the same 15-year period.
Yet, there is suspicion of shadiness in China’s charity. “China's aid program is so opaque it is very difficult to understand exactly what it is doing,” Jonathan Pryke, director of the Lowy Institute's Pacific Islands Programme, wrote in an article published by The Interpreter. “China does not conform to the sophisticated reporting and accountability mechanisms that traditional western donors have developed over decades of aid delivery.”
In the Pacific region, it’s easy to be leery of China’s aid as a gambit to exploit the desperation of poor island states, where — absent full attention from Washington D.C. — building a clout can be facile.
As the attention that the U.S. gives to the Pacific islands region is outpaced by China’s growing influence, Australia gets more fidgety.
Australian Sen. Concetta Fierravanti-Wells accused China of “duchessing” Pacific island politicians, and buying their diplomatic support with “useless buildings” and “roads to nowhere” in the region. Traditionally, China’s growing presence in the region has been a concern for Australia.
But Cheng Jingye, China’s ambassador to Australia, said the Chinese government “always attaches no political strings” to foreign aid and “fully respects the wishes and needs of the recipient countries.” Besides, he added, “the Pacific nations want China’s aid—just ask them.”
Why the fear of China?
For one, its geopolitics is characterized by an aggressive thirst for expansionism. In the South China Sea, China has begun advancing its military interests, catching its neighbors and the United States off guard. China has ongoing disputes with the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam over possession of the Spratlys Islands, among others. Given its rapid economic growth, China is speculated to emerge as the hegemonic power in the just a matter of time.
There are other aspects to this soft power, besides its ideological incompatibility with the West, that trigger Chinaphobia, especially among Americans. “They know that China has, in many ways, become the workshop of the world. And they know that they've - that America's position as the only real superpower no longer is as clear as it was even 10 years ago. So, I think a lot of this is kind of an insecurity over what this portends for the United States itself,” Bruce Pickering, vice president of Global Programs and executive director of Asia Society, said in a 2015 interview with NPR.
And there is China’s reputation for poor products manufactured in sweatshops and, worse, a wide range of human rights violations such as arbitrary arrests, inhumane forms of interrogation ad suppression of free speech.
In terms of regional security, China is becoming an ambiguous trouble. Through aggressive display of military power, China has repeatedly warned it would run to North Korea’s defense should the United States strikes first. At the same time, however, China has been shifting its military posture in the Korean theater, suggesting its willingness to send warning signals to Pyongyang.
“Though America cannot know precisely when and how it would intervene,” Adam Mount wrote in the Aug. 29, issue of The Atlantic, “this much is certain: China is prepared to keep the peace on the Korean peninsula—whether the White House likes it or not.”
“China Threat” or “China’s Peaceful Rise?” This is a conundrum that in recent years political analysts have been trying to unriddle.
Mar-Vic Cagurangan is the publisher of the Pacific Island Times.