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China's new South Pacific influence

By Nick Squires
BBC, South Pacific

As China extends its economic and political potential in the world, nowhere is too remote or too small to merit Beijing's interest, not even the tiny nations which slumber in the South Pacific.

Chinese store on Nauru [Photo: Nick Squires]
The shops and restaurants are the most visible sign of a growing Chinese presence in the South Pacific

If you were ever fortunate enough to venture to the palm-fringed islands of the South Pacific, you would probably look forward to tucking into some tropical fruit and freshly caught fish.

These days, though, you might be disappointed.

While mangoes and marlin are certainly available in the tourist resorts, in towns and villages it is more likely to be fried rice and springs rolls you would be dining on.

Chinese restaurants have sprung up all over the region, some of them big and grand, most little more than shacks with corrugated-iron roofs.

Often they are next door to Chinese-run trade stores, where shopkeepers hunker down behind iron-bar grilles and sell everything from candles to corned beef.

The shops and restaurants are the most visible sign of a growing Chinese presence in the South Pacific.

New kid on the block

Beijing is boosting its political and economic influence in a region which was long dominated by European powers such as France and Britain.

Solomon Islands
China needs the mineral resources South Pacific nations can provide

Gallic pretensions to world power status ensure it retains three colonies - including New Caledonia and French Polynesia - but Britain's commitment has long since waned.

China is the new kid on the block.

But why the Chinese interest in a region regarded by most of the world as an obscure backwater?

Well, for a start, the Chinese are looking to satisfy their voracious appetite for natural resources.

Copper, zinc and nickel from Papua New Guinea, timber from the Solomon Islands, manganese and cobalt from the sea-bed are all vital to feed China's extraordinary pace of development.

But it is politics - not business - that is really turning the gaze of the Chinese dragon towards these pearls of the South Seas.

Diplomatic war

Pacific nations may be miniscule and little known - the likes of Palau and Kiribati (pronounced Kiribass) are hardly household names - but they are vitally important in the diplomatic war between Beijing and Taiwan (which China regards as a breakaway province).

Six countries in the Pacific grant official recognition to Taiwan's capital Taipei, and the Taiwanese do all they can to retain their loyalty.

Climb out of the plane in remote Tuvalu, for instance, and the first building you notice - because it is the only structure taller than a coconut palm in the entire atoll nation - is the government's new office complex, built with Taiwanese money.

On a recent trip to the tiny nation of Nauru, I came across a pungent piggery, again paid for by Taiwan.

Taipei maintains one of the very few diplomatic missions on Nauru, a country so small it can be driven around in half an hour.

Red carpet treatment

The ambassador lives in a little bungalow by the beach, the Taiwanese flag flapping wanly in the tropical breeze from a white pole. It must be one of the loneliest postings in the world.

Australian soldier on aircraft carrier off East Timor [Photo: Nick Squires]
In the last few years, I have watched Australian soldiers and police deploy to hotspots like East Timor, Papua New Guinea and the Solomons

China, of course, is not to be outdone in the cheque-book diplomacy stakes.

It, too, has lavished money on its loyal South Pacific allies, paying for everything from sports stadiums to health schemes.

Beijing frequently rolls out the red carpet for the leaders of countries like Tonga and Samoa.

What makes its aid attractive is that it is bestowed with no strings attached, unlike the assistance received from the European Union or Australia and New Zealand, which rather awkwardly harp on about good governance and other tricky issues.

As one Pacific analyst puts it: "Chinese aid is quite different from other countries, it goes straight for the jugular."

But with China's increasing presence come tensions.

Flinging money around among the political elite can exacerbate already high levels of official corruption.

The business acumen of Chinese entrepreneurs stirs intense resentment in the famously laid-back Pacific, where initiative is often stifled by the custom of having to share profits with your extended family.

Criminal activity

And while the majority of Chinese settlers who have emigrated to the region in recent years are honest and hardworking, there is a criminal element which is involved in people smuggling, prostitution and illegal gambling.

Four years ago, police in Fiji busted a massive Chinese-run drug factory described as the biggest of its kind in the southern hemisphere.

All of which is a worry for powers like Australia and New Zealand, which regard the South Pacific as their patch.

In the last few years, I have watched Australian soldiers and police deploy to hotspots like East Timor, Papua New Guinea and the Solomons.

No-one is suggesting China wants to do the same, at least not yet. But the old order is changing.

Canberra, Wellington and Washington can no longer take for granted their influence in the South Pacific.

It may have a reputation as an earthly paradise of coral reefs and coconut groves, but it is fast becoming a stage on which Beijing flexes its political and economic muscle.

Unlike those plates of chicken fried rice and chow mein, that is something which Pacific islanders may find hard to digest.

Map of the South Pacific

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 3 May, 2008 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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