Chinese debt not the problem as Pacific assertiveness grows

PHOTO: One more Chinese funded sports project breaking ground in Samoa


By Renate Rivers

A specialist in regional politics and diplomacy has said regional debt is a concern but regional debt to China is not.

Sandra Tarte, Head of School and Director of Politics and International Affairs at the University of the South Pacific, joined a Pacific Journalists Dialogue on the fringes of the Forum Economic Ministers Meeting and shared her views on recent increased geopolitical activity in the region.

“There’s been a high concern about debt but the debt that is really a problem is probably PNG and Fiji which have high levels of debt, but that is domestic debt held by their superannuation funds and to some extent multilateral things.

“Vanuatu and Samoa have had some degree of debt. The only country that has some semblance of debt problems with China is Tonga, but those loans that seem to be the cause of this were not triggered by the Chinese government,” said Tarte.

She attributes Tonga’s current debt situation to Chinese firms in the early 2000s, seeking projects and loans to enhance their own businesses.

She highlighted the emergence of China as a regional power; the US pivot to the Pacific on the heels of naval assertiveness from China and the trilateral partnership with Australia and New Zealand that has attempted to reframe the wider region as Indo-Pacific, as opposed to Asia-Pacific.

According to Tarte, much of the new investments are being driven by concerns about China’s role and influence in the Pacific.

Australian emergency aid to cyclone victims in the Pacific islands

She says Australia is concerned that Chinese aid and related activities will undermine their position of influence in the region as ‘partner of choice’ and from Australia’s perspective, of particular concern is China’s possible dual-use of aid and infrastructure projects – for both commercial and strategic goals.

“We have also seen allegations, mostly unfounded, of so-called debt trap diplomacy by China here in the region. While debt is a problem – and appears to be growing, it is not debt to China that is a concern,” Tarte said.

The changed level of geopolitical activity has contributed to a paradigm shift in the way the Pacific engages at regional and global levels, according to Tarte.

“This shift began in part as a response to discontent with the way our traditional partners, Australia and New Zealand in particular, dominated regional forums and imposed their own agenda on the region.”

New Zealand resets its relationship with the Pacific island countries

Tarte identifies the suspension of Fiji from the Pacific Islands Forum in 2009 as the catalyst that triggered a move at the United Nations for Pacific Island missions to operate through the Pacific SIDS group.

Another example of the new, more independent diplomacy by the Pacific is the move by tuna-rich states to implement a new fisheries management approach through the Parties to the Nauru Agreement, yielding unprecedented financial returns for its members.

According to Tarte, the increasing urgency to achieve meaningful action on climate change motivated leaders to take a more assertive role on the global stage.

“What this has meant is a more assertive, confident, independent and innovative diplomacy by Pacific states – increasingly willing to push back on initiatives emanating from our foreign development partners; and willing to leverage their combined political, economic and moral weight to influence international and regional arrangements. This is expressed through the Blue Pacific narrative and identity, launched in 2017.”

Proposed Pacific Resiliency Facility
Discussions as this week’s FEMM will feature a proposed Pacific Resiliency Facility, which Tarte sees as another initiative that signals the new proactive and innovative action of Pacific island states.

“Earlier this year, Dame Meg Taylor described how various infrastructure initiatives have been announced by Japan, Australia and the US in response to China’s growing influence. She suggested that such assistance could be better utilized if channelled through the Pacific Resilience Facility – ‘rather than playing the merits of one against the other’.

She also suggested that such an approach would help establish common regional criteria to help Forum members assess investments against the vision and priorities of the Blue Pacific. In other words, to ensure certain agreed standards are met.