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On their own terms


Pacific Island countries want assistance but not at the expense of their sovereignty

After decades of neglect, the United States has once again turned its attention to the Pacific Islands region in an attempt to undermine the successful work initiated by China in the region.

The Pacific Island Country Summit, held in Washington in September, was very much about what the US wanted in the Pacific, and not about what the Pacific Islands wanted. The promised gift of $810 million in expanded programs was offered only on the US' terms.

This is a very different approach from that taken by China over the past decade where assistance and Belt and Road projects do not come tied to a political agenda that requires adherence to a foreign system of governance.

At the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, CPC Central Committee General Secretary Xi Jinping noted that China wants "to contribute its share to building an open global economy that delivers greater benefits to all peoples".China's assistance in the Pacific is consistent with the objectives of respecting other countries' sovereignty and opposing "hegemonism and power politics, the Cold War mentality" and double standards.

The US summit has failed to recognize that things have changed in the Pacific. Now the Pacific Islands are more protective of their sovereignty, more sophisticated in their understanding of the world, and the role they can play in it. The summit provided evidence of these changes.

The US has returned bearing gifts, offering them as an ill-disguised cover for the pursuit of its own interests. The $810 million gift is a small amount in terms of the infrastructure and social needs of the Pacific region. The promised gift is also dependent upon the results of the US mid-term elections. There is no guarantee that a Republican-dominated Congress would approve these Pacific commitments.

If delivered, the additional programs will make a welcome contribution to addressing decades of US indifference to the region. However, Pacific Island leaders were clear that they saw this as a contribution that would work alongside the programs, and support infrastructure development already undertaken by China. China has provided foreign aid to the Pacific Island countries including medical teams, training and scholarships, humanitarian aid, youth volunteers, debt relief, budget support, infrastructure projects and technical assistance in areas such as agriculture.

The US' new program of assistance followed the lead already set by China in the region. Its "gift" was given mainly in response to China's expanding influence and due to China's record of support for infrastructure development and social assistance.

Countries with significant infrastructure needs make use of multiple sources of funding. They borrow from Western donors and aid agencies, from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, and from multilateral banks and private bond holders. Many prefer to use Chinese financing for big projects in transport and power. In the interests of their countries, the leaders of the Pacific Island countries actively search for and accept funding support from multiple sources.

The traditional Western donors have abandoned hard infrastructure funding almost completely. They prefer to finance projects such as social services, and administration. Increasingly, they also prefer to back some element promoting Western "democratic values".

Projects and support funding available under the Belt and Road Initiative stepped in to fill the infrastructure gap left by Western donors. The Pacific Island leaders make rational decisions in their search for developmental funding. They looked to China to help with transport and power. Over the past decade, China has responded with projects in the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and other islands.

The Pacific Island Countries Summit was a new part of this funding mosaic. In many ways, the Pacific Islands collected the better side of the deal, accepting the gift on their terms.

This represents a change in the status of the Pacific Islands and the way they are prepared to leverage their geopolitical position to their advantage. This independence is welcomed, although it will be a delicate act to balance sovereign objectives and the continued acceptance of aid.

Although hailed by some as a success in terms of the US projecting itself and its multilateral relationship with the Pacific Island countries, the reality suggests this view fails to recognize the change in the balance of power and the sophisticated courting of assistance from both the United States and China.

Solomon Islands' Foreign Minister Jeremiah Manele reiterated the nation's support for China and recognized the important role China has played in the modernization of the Islands.

The Pacific Islands community welcomed assistance, but it was on their terms and no longer accepted it at the expense of their sovereignty. It's a position that China understands and has acknowledged for more than a decade in delivering assistance to the Pacific Island countries.

The author is an international financial technical analysis expert and a national board member of the Australia China Business Council. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

Contact the editor at editor@chinawatch.cn.