China's secretive efforts to spread aid around the Pacific have been revealed for the first time, with an analysis released yesterday showing Beijing has spread US$1.5 billion (S$2 billion) across eight island nations since 2006.
China does not collect and publish details about its aid programme, but a researcher at Sydney's Lowy Institute tallied the amounts using more than 500 sources.
These included Pacific island budgets, Chinese government announcements and tender documents, as well as site visits and interviews.
The figures show China is now one of the region's biggest donors and is set to overtake Japan this year as the third-biggest behind Australia and the United States.
The biggest recipients of Chinese aid in the Pacific region since 2006 were Papua New Guinea, which received US$440 million, Fiji, which received US$339 million, and Vanuatu, which received US$219 million.
Projects that received funding included US$45 million for dormitories for a university in Papua New Guinea, US$51 million for a road improvement project in Fiji and tens of millions of dollars for schools in Samoa.
Australia is still by far the region's biggest donor, granting US$6.8 billion from 2006 to 2013.
China's growing distribution of aid around the world - especially in Africa - has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years.
The lack of transparency has led to fierce debate about the amount of China's aid and the extent to which it is aimed at assisting recipient countries or gaining influence in the affairs of foreign countries and exploiting their resources.
Dr Philippa Brant, the Lowy Institute researcher who compiled the figures on China's aid in the Pacific, said it appeared to be motivated by a mix of objectives.
These included expanding economic opportunities for Chinese companies, broadening its global engagement as it seeks to present itself as a responsible great power, increasing diplomatic and political ties in the region, and altruistic purposes.
Dr Brant, an expert on Chinese foreign aid, told The Straits Times that China's Pacific aid had shifted from the era of so-called "chequebook diplomacy", when it jostled with Taiwan for regional influence in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Small Pacific nations have often been ripe targets for aid-based influence because many have small economies plus votes in multilateral forums such as the United Nations General Assembly.
"The issue with Taiwan has settled down," she told The Straits Times. "I don't see any specific strategic goals for China apart from a general global engagement and a desire to project itself as a responsible and generous power that supports countries in their objectives."
The analysis shows China's aid in the region was given to the eight Pacific nations, plus Timor Leste, with which it has diplomatic ties.
Most analysts believe China's aid is aimed more at securing its economic interests and jobs for Chinese workers than projecting "hard power" or expanding its military reach.
But critics say China's aid comes with few or no demands for political reforms or improved governance and can undermine programmes of countries such as Australia and the United States, which often demand such conditions.
The Lowy Institute analysis found about 80 per cent of China's aid in the region was given as concessional loans, with 20 per cent given as grants. China's ambassador to Samoa, Ms Li Yanduan, reportedly told a conference in Samoa last week that the lack of transparency around Chinese aid was partly due to it being disbursed by different departments or ministries.
Dr Brant said aid could help Beijing to foster ties in the region and generate support at multilateral forums. But she added: "I don't think you can draw a direct link between the aid it gives and support at multilateral forums. It is more a sense of developing warm feelings that can help it down the track."
This article was first published on Feb 03, 2015.
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