China envoy blasts 'ignorant' critics of aid for Pacific isles

Samoa's Prime Minister Tuilaepa Malielegaoi and China's Special Envoy Wang Xuefeng at the Pacific Islands Forum last week.
Samoa's Prime Minister Tuilaepa Malielegaoi and China's Special Envoy Wang Xuefeng at the Pacific Islands Forum last week.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

WELLINGTON • China's ambassador to Samoa yesterday labelled the critics of Beijing's activities in the Pacific islands as "ignorant" and "prejudiced", in the latest testy public missive from the Chinese diplomatic corps.

Beijing's growing influence in the Pacific islands was a major theme at a tense regional summit in Tuvalu last week, where Australia tried to reassert leadership in an area it traditionally regards as its sphere of influence.

Instead, Canberra faced criticism over its lack of action on climate change, with leaders like Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama saying they preferred China's brand of diplomacy to "condescending" Australia.

Ambassador Chao Xiaoliang tried to seize the moment, dismissing Western charges that China's foreign-aid programme creates client states as inaccurate "Cold War" thinking. "Rather than pointing fingers at China's good deeds, those who keep on making groundless accusations and speculations might as well do more themselves to provide help to the Pacific island countries," Mr Chao wrote in the Samoa Observer.

"Some people questioned the purpose of China's aid, even disregarded the facts and fabricated the so-called 'China debt trap' - this is either of prejudice or ignorance of China's foreign aid policy."

China's aid comes largely in the form of low-interest loans, but critics say it leaves debtor nations beholden to Beijing, eroding their independence.

US Defence Secretary Mark Esper earlier this month accused China of destabilising the Pacific region using such tactics, citing "predatory economics and debt-for-sovereignty deals".

Mr Chao's response in the Observer was blunt: "The so-called 'China debt trap' is extremely ridiculous. China's foreign aid... comes without interfering in their domestic affairs or attaching any political strings," he wrote.

Australia, the largest aid donor in the Pacific, is wary of China's interest in the region, fearing that the long-term goal is to establish a military base in the islands.

 
 
 

It launched a charm offensive dubbed the "Pacific Step-up" last year to counter Beijing's influence.

But Chinese diplomats have also been determined to have their voices heard in the region, sometimes pushing their cause aggressively. Envoys in Australia and New Zealand this month praised pro-China university students for confronting protesters supporting Hong Kong's democracy drive, earning a rebuke from Canberra.

During last November's Apec meeting in Papua New Guinea, police had to be called when Chinese officials "tried to barge into" then Foreign Minister Rimbink Pato's office to have their say on the summit's communique.

At the 2018 Pacific Islands Forum, host nation Nauru demanded an apology after the head of China's team walked out because he was not allowed to speak before the island leaders who were holding the summit.

Samoa's Prime Minister Tuilaepa Malielegaoi last week said he was more interested in the practical aid China could offer than in calming Canberra's geo-strategic concerns. "Their enemies (Australia and its allies) are not our enemies," he said.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 21, 2019, with the headline 'China envoy blasts 'ignorant' critics of aid for Pacific isles'. Print Edition | Subscribe