China Pours Aid to Islands; Rising Power's Financial Interest in South Pacific under Scrutiny

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Byline: Julie Pendray, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

AVARUA, Cook Islands - In this tiny land tucked between Samoa and Tahiti, the People's Re- public of China is winning political favor for its aid, as it is elsewhere in the Pacific, but not without criticism.

High-profile public buildings such as courthouses, police stations and sports stadiums have been offered or built by the Chinese, as well as in Samoa and Vanuatu. Hurricane-relief funds have been sent, and there are offers of scholarships to Chinese universities.

However, some Cook Islanders are publicly debating whether they want the proposed loan for a new stadium - to be built by Chinese labor - and what the superpower's interest is in the self-governing islands, which have links to New Zealand but are barely known to the rest of the world.

Prime Minister Jim Marurai's stated support for a "one-China" policy is one reason. Both China and Taiwan, which Beijing considers a breakaway province, are giving luxury visits to South Pacific leaders as they compete for recognition. In countries with United Nations' votes, that makes a difference. In others, such as the Cook Islands, which are not fully independent, it is more about local influence at this stage.

And there are other reasons for China's involvement.

"As in other places like Africa, they are after resources," said Benjamin Reilly, associate professor at the Crawford School of Economics and Government at Australian National University, Canberra. "China's increasing engagement with Papua New Guinea, which has massive gas and mineral reserves, can be seen in this context. Third, China sees the South Pacific as part of its neighborhood in the Asia-Pacific region."

Throughout the islands, the Chinese have opened embassies and extended diplomatic relations. In Kiribati, they have established a satellite space-tracking station and upgraded the main airport. Military training and logistical support have been given to Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu and Tonga, and reciprocal military visits have been undertaken with New Zealand. Mr. Reilly thinks that China may one day use South Pacific islands to deploy land-based anti-ship missiles to make up for its naval weakness.

Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has spent less effort in the South Pacific, closing some embassies and cutting back aid programs. Taking advantage of the comparative vacuum, China's goal is to become the pre-eminent power there, Mr. Reilly said.

"The U.S. is almost completely focused elsewhere and has left the South Pacific essentially to Australia, and by extension New Zealand, to look after," he said. "Iraq and Afghanistan have compounded the problem by making the U.S. even more distracted."

There are recent signs that Americans want to counter China's presence. The State Department designated 2007 as the "Year of the Pacific," calling it "a focused effort by the U.S. government to increase our role in the Pacific region in support of regional stability, good governance and economic development."

At the Pacific Islands Conference of Leaders' meeting in May in Washington,the Bush administration announced that it would open a regional office of the State Department's "public diplomacy" bureau in Fiji. Critics, however, wanted to hear more about aid and less about politics.

Former Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage was in Auckland in September as part of the U.S.-New Zealand Partnership Forum to discuss a possible free trade agreement. The strong Chinese investment in the region was a topic of conversation. …