“We’ve got very paternalistic partners”: a conversation on security, climate and great power rivalry from a Pacific perspective

On January 14, 2022, a massive volcanic eruption in Tonga sent ashes 20 kilometers high into the atmosphere, prompting global aviation alerts and discussions of a possible “year without a summer.” The following tsunami destroyed extensive sections of the capital city Nukuʻalofa. Thick volcanic ashes blanketed the country, suffocating people, polluting water supplies and cutting off communications.

While the Pacific Island nation’s traditional partners in the region, Australia and New Zealand, mobilized to send aid in the immediate aftermath, what also caught attention was the arrival of Chinese naval ships carrying reconstruction materials. As Australia’s ABC described the dynamics then: “Publicly the Australian government and military insists the rush to get aid to Tonga is not a contest, but privately officials acknowledge the situation has highlighted the strategic tussle for influence in the region.”

Aerial photo shows a flotilla of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy carring relief supplies arriving in Nuku’ alofa, Tonga, Feb. 15, 2022

That dynamics would define regional relations in the coming months, to the chagrin of Pacific Island nations themselves. Repeatedly, leaders of the countries expressed their unwillingness to be dragged into great power rivalry and insistence on regional agency. But the courtship of the Pacific Island nations has only grown more intense with Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi’s 8-country tour in May (that delivered only a partial diplomatic victory), visit by Australia’s new foreign minister Penny Wong weeks later, and Secretary Antony Blinken’s latest partnership proposal at the US-Pacific Island Country Summit. 

What does this mean for international relations, aid and governance in the region? Panda Paw Dragon Claw had the opportunity to have a one-on-one interview with Fiji-based Maureen Penjueli, the coordinator for the Pacific Network on Globalization (PANG). Maureen has almost 30 years of experience in the region’s not-for-profit sector working on environmental, economic, political and social justice issues in the Pacific region.

Panda Paw Dragon Claw (PPDC): How do people in the Pacific Island nations view the recent “charm campaigns” directed at the region by major powers? 

Maureen Penjueli (MP):  There is a sense that we are now back to geo-strategic importance for all of our external players. This is almost like the Cold War era. We’ve been courted quite heavily by the allies of the US, in preparation to resist China’s slow but steady entry to the region. For an ordinary person to see these kinds of high-level engagement in the region can be quite confronting.

PPDC: You brought up this idea of the Cold War. Security is often very high on the agenda of such high-level visits to the region. China was supposed to reach a security-trade compact with regional countries in May. But how is “security” understood on the ground?

MP: Since a couple of years ago, the Pacific has been really expanding the definition of security beyond traditional or conventional security: military, policing, and borders… to include “human security”. So the region has been one of the very first to make the climate crisis the most important security issue. The inclusion of environmental concerns in the concept of security is quite unique particularly in this part of the world where climate change is acutely felt. 

There is this ongoing tension of trying to educate people outside the region about what Pacific security is in this expanded framework of definition. A lot of the external partners have to juggle conventional security interests (border control, transnational crime…) with what the Pacific is really confronting, such as the climate emergency. These two narratives are almost competing with each other. When you look at the US’s Indo-Pacific strategy, it’s all about conventional security interests.

PPDC: How does this new understanding of security translate into specific developmental needs ?

MP: The key one is really about territorial integrity. There are significant concerns in the Pacific that with sea level rise, many of our countries, particularly low lying coral atolls, nations which are less than 5 meters above sea level, are likely going to disappear. So there is a lot of emphasis around ensuring territorial integrity within the context of climate change. That’s one dimension of development interest that the Pacific wants to protect: the international recognition of territories including EEZs, continental shelves etc.

The second one is significant infrastructure development: climate resilient infrastructure, whether they are ports, roads or sea walls. Pacific Island nations have been trying to secure investments to support such infrastructure needs and traditional climate financing has been very difficult to access. So China has been a country that countries like Fiji, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Tonga and Samoa go to for investments and financing for a while. And China has been very responsive to such needs.

Projected sea level rise according to the RCP 4.5 scenario (a greenhouse gas concentration trajectory adopted by IPCC in its climate modelling) for 2030 in the Pacific region. Countries’ Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) are shown in white. Fiji’s EEZ is highlighted in red. Source: www.grida.no/publications/434

PPDC: Are you saying that climate financing is hard to access even from conventional donor countries?

MP: Yes, it has been very difficult for a while until very recently. Now it’s become likely easier partly because the US has been stepping back in a big way. The Biden Administration has hosted Pacific Island nations for the first time in a very long time, and they are trying to open up funding too. We are seeing the same from Japan, and the traditional [funders] like World Bank and Asia Development Bank. But obtaining loans, especially concessional loans from multilateral banks is still not very easy, particularly in the context of the pandemic and the debt crisis. So I think a lot of the countries are looking to widen their portfolio for investment. And China has filled a lot of that gap before the pandemic hit. 

PPDC: The US has been consistently conveying this message that they would like to offer an alternative development assistance package to that of China’s. How is that message received in the region?

MP: I think we have to watch and see the Biden Administration offer because they are in many ways playing catch-up in the region. Countries need to look at some of these instruments, such as the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, carefully and weigh the kind of decisions they have to make. It is a good thing for countries to know where investments can come from, and who offers the better deals such as concessional loans. Financial prudence is obviously critical at this stage, but so long as we can widen the range of financing sources that countries can tap into, that’s good for the region. 

I think our countries are a little bit weary of offers from the Biden Administration and are taking a wait-and-see attitude toward whether their promise of a better development package than China’s will materialize or not. Many of our countries are not going to let go of the Chinese investments just yet, partly because it is one of the readily available funds. Debt stressed Pacific Island nations are looking to see who among our many lenders is going to be the first to initiate debt structuring. China’s approach to debt across the globe is closely watched here. We’ve seen some very positive signs in Africa. So I think countries are just weighing options and making decisions based on their own experience. For them, China is a long-term development partner, not new to the region. They would like to treat it as equal to other partners.

Maureen Penjueli

PPDC: One of the key criticisms of the Chinese approach to overseas development is that its emphasis on non-interference and reliance on local elites corrupts institutions and governance in the recipient countries, particularly in terms of transparency and accountability. What has been your experience with this governance challenge?

MP: It’s true to the extent that some of the initial entries of the Chinese companies were really messy. There has been a lot of work trying to improve the way they operate. As for this whole idea of “non-interference,” I think people forget that it works both ways. Our countries actually quite want that. We don’t have to point to China in terms of governance issues because many of our communities are faced with our own governments. In many ways [this approach to foreign aid] fits “the big man culture” in the Pacific and can perpetuate the kind of governance issues that many of us, and particularly western scholars, would find problematic. But it suits our governments’ agenda. So for communities that really gets difficult because you have development partners that further makes it difficult for them to take governments to account. It’s a double-edged sword as on the one hand it facilitates aid and financing, but on the other hand, the burden to hold stakeholders accountable shifts to the communities.

It’s important to understand the different cultures, and which components of our cultures embrace the same ideas as “non-interference” that lend to human rights violations and transparency flaws. A lot of our countries, even before China was here, were already low in terms of governance standards. That’s where the challenge lies. 

But we are beginning to see some legal cases and challenges. There was a specific case in Fiji here with a Chinese company that was taken to court and had to close down its operations. So you can see that our court system can try to improve things; communities are able to take this up; and there are renegotiations with Chinese companies about the environmental and human rights laws and standards that they have to meet. So there are improvements but it remains challenging in a region with the “big man culture”.

PPDC: You keep referring to the “big man culture” in the region, could you elaborate?

MP: For example, in Fiji we’ve had several coups, with a very strong military. Across the Pacific, the “big man culture” comes from traditional indigenous governance structures that are parochial, top-down and not conducive to a bottom-up approach. Consultation and transparency may not necessarily be what the governments strive for. That’s where [non-interference] can become a problem as it enhances certain features of governance rather than working for better outcomes for the communities.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi meeting with PIF’s Secretary General Henry Puna on May 29, 2022 , Image: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, China

PPDC: Leaders of the region have said that Pacific Island nations “don’t want to be the grass trampled over by the elephants.” Instead of driving each other out, are there opportunities for the US, China, Australia and others to collaborate and jointly deliver development assistance to the region?

MP: It’s been very unfortunate that Pacific Island nations are caught in a situation where they are simply not listened to. We’ve got very paternalistic partners…  I mean they are the largest aid funders in the region so they are trying to represent Pacific interests, and I think that’s quite problematic. 

We’ve been saying for a while that China is an important partner. It is part of the non-alignment movement; we have a long history with China. It’s not in any one’s interest to force an “us or them” scenario because no one wins in that case. So I think the need to create political dialogue spaces is quite important. But when you see how the bilateral cooperations work (China-Pacific, US-Pacific, Australia-Pacific), you can see it’s still hard to try to facilitate dialogue among the development partners in the region. I’m not sure what it will take to have all the development partners at the same table rather than the current model of “divide and rule”, or total capture by one or another.

There are efforts at various project levels to do co-financing and work through some of these dynamics. In the Cook Islands there have been joint China-EU-Australia projects. But there are still not many opportunities that we can see yet.

PPDC: Are their regional platforms or mechanisms that can bring them together? Can the Pacific Island Forum (PIF) play a role?

MP: The PIF was established as the region’s premier political body but it tends to be ignored. The Biden Administration would announce the Indo-Pacific Strategy outside that framework. That’s where we are really stuck: the development partners haven’t really considered using our own regional institutions as a way to facilitate cross-partners initiatives even though the PIF does have a slot for development partners. The tension was so high this year that they decided to separate the forum so we wouldn’t be caught in the China vs. US tension for the region. 

PPDC: As you have highlighted, the climate crisis is a core consideration for the region’s security right now and regional leaders have, in their interactions with Chinese counterparts, consistently raised the need to keep the 1.5C degree target alive. Besides supporting climate resilient infrastructure in the Pacific, what are some of the other regional expectations on China especially in light of the upcoming UN climate talks in Egypt?

MP: The demand by the Pacific Island nations is not unique to China. But I think in the case of China, what our countries would be looking for is the need to phase out fossil fuels. Obviously climate financing, as well as climate insurance and loss and damage will also be quite big on the agenda. 

The support for real territorial integrity is a key regional initiative that’s driven by the Pacific Island nations. We recognize the coordinates [of our territories] in our national laws and then we need our regional partners to recognize these coordinates. That’s one of the big initiatives we are pushing for as a region, and we will be seeking political recognition and endorsement for territorial integrity in the context of climate change. I think those would be the key discussion areas with China to see what it can do to support, particularly at the multilateral level. China’s own national commitments around mitigation and adaptation are also what the Pacific Island nations will be watching at this year’s COP27.

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