China woos Pacific nations for Silk Road

Fiji has signed up for China's One Belt One Road plan and a Pacific Island Forum official believes the program holds great potential for the region.

Struggling Pacific island nations who aren't feeling much love from Australia, are being wooed by China to be part its ambitious project building bonanza.

Fiji has already signed up for the Chinese government's One Belt One Road Initiative and Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama joined 28 other world leaders at a recent Beijing summit on the new Silk Road plan.

It's an ambitious infrastructure building spree on land and across oceans linking parts of Asia, Eurasia, Africa, the Middle East and Europe aimed at boosting trade, economic growth and cutting transit time for goods.

There's $US1.3 trillion ($A1.8 trillion) worth of projects already in the pipeline.

It's open to all countries, not just those physically on the ancient land and sea trade routes.

The Pacific Island Forum's representative in China, David Morris said nations were looking for opportunities to boost their fisheries, mining and tourism industries, increase trade as well as shipping and air connections, transport and communications infrastructure.

"This does hold great potential," Mr Morris said.

"Pacific island countries are very remote from major markets, they are not well served by transport and communications links at present, although there is progress being made."

But Mr Morris said Pacific countries were conscious about debt levels.

"All of the governments are aware of the need to balance debt with economic development," he said.

In 2009 Tonga's debt to China was $US100.4 million ($A132.9 million), which was equivalent to one-third of its national income.

China's influence in the Pacific is growing and between 2006-2016 200 aid projects were showered with $US1.8 billion.

According to a Lowy Institute interactive tracker map, Chinese aid to Fiji has already gazumped Australia's contribution.

Beijing's aid to Samoa and Tonga is close to outstripping Canberra's assistance.

Mr Morris said Pacific island nations are proudly independent and don't see their relationships with China and other western countries like Australia through a competitive lens.

"There's no doubt Australia doesn't think much about its neighbourhood and the neighbourhood knows that," he said.

Australia's engagement with its Pacific neighbours is something Labor's defence spokesman Richard Marles has flagged should be ramped up.

But he's relaxed about China's growing ties with Pacific island countries.

"The countries of the Pacific have a right to engage with the rest of the countries of the world... and make friends elsewhere," Mr Marles told the National Press Club in Canberra last week.

"Sometimes there's a presumption that (Australia) is the only dog in the woods."

New Zealand is also among the 68 countries to sign up to One Belt One Road, but Australia is yet to join.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop briefed the national security committee of the cabinet about China's grand scheme but ministers were not convinced of the benefits of participation, The Australian reported.

3 min read
Published 29 May 2017 at 12:06pm
Source: AAP