Opinion & Analysis

China in the Pacific: Challenging the existing narrative

We need to start changing the way we talk about China in the Pacific, writes University of Canterbury PhD student Ashalyna Noa.

OPINION: China’s presence in the Pacific is often portrayed in mainstream media as a cause for concern. Typically, the narrative around China’s ever-increasing influence in the region is one of suspicion — a "debt trap" for Pacific nations, one of "strategic competition" or generally of an alarming or controversial nature. What’s behind this rhetoric?  Is it a reflection of whose voices have tended to dominate and influence mainstream discussions?

When thinking about issues of development in the Pacific I think it’s important to understand whose voices have been prioritised in discussions.

First of all, diverse Pacific and Chinese perspectives are often excluded from the discussion. If they are included, it can often be seen as being tokenistic, or their status is undervalued compared to the status quo.

There’s also a sense that Pacific leaders are incapable of dictating their own future. The dominant media narrative perpetuates the notion that Pacific leaders, some of whom have often spoken out in favour of China’s support, are inept and unable to manage their own development agenda. Pacific leaders are urged to be cautious of China’s interests despite the mainstream continuing to exert condescending undercurrents in its engagement with the Pacific.

The Pacific is often linked to being a series of small, isolated and dependent states. While there is some truth to this, framing it in this way pushes just one narrative of the region at the expense of others. This dominant framing of the Pacific perpetuates negative perceptions of the region and its peoples and fuels the negative stereotyping of Pacific diaspora living in surrounding developed countries.

In August this year, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Deputy PM Michael McCormack came under fire for their neo-colonial remarks regarding climate action in the Pacific, despite years of Pacific leaders lobbying that climate change threatens the survival and livelihood of their countries, people and cultures. Closer to home, in September last year, New Zealand radio broadcaster Heather du Plessis-Allan told listeners: “The Pacific Islands don’t matter. They are nothing but leeches on us”.

These kinds of comments in the media illustrate the way our Pacific peoples and communities are undervalued. It also demonstrates how harmful it can be when there are too few perspectives at the table.

An alternative narrative

Since the 2017 Pacific Islands Forum in Samoa, a different narrative has gained momentum and continues to strengthen. This "Blue Pacific" narrative provides a strengths-based lens of the region and capitalises on strength in numbers. It’s one where Pacific nations are reframed as "large ocean states" interconnected by the ocean with a collective voice of solidarity.

The Blue Pacific supports the region’s united approach towards the urgency of climate action. It will be interesting to see how this narrative unfolds at the leadership and grassroots levels. It is unclear whether the region’s leaders will delve collectively into more politically sensitive issues in the region such as the West Papua issue, the China-Taiwan divide, China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the Indo-Pacific concept. On these issues, there are diverse perspectives between leaders and their local people.

China is one of a number of aid partners in the region, although its influence is continuously increasing as the recent news of Kiribati and Solomon Islands having switched allegiance to China from Taiwan has shown. Pacific leaders have often highlighted that the Pacific is big enough for different partners, and it should not be viewed as a zero-sum competition. It’s a perspective that suggests China is no different from other partners in the region — they all come with different interests, approaches and concerns.

Yet China’s growing influence in the region has stimulated renewed approaches and attention from traditional powers. The colonial history in the region, and its ongoing impacts, has seen these renewed engagement policies being viewed with some disquiet. In August, Dr Katerina Teaiwa and Dr Tarcisius Kabutaulaka criticised Australia’s “Pacific Step Up” for ignoring priorities of Pacific countries and highlighted concern with its focus on securitisation in the region. Despite these concerns, Australia’s "Step Up" and New Zealand’s "Pacific Reset" provide further opportunities to strengthen China’s partnerships with Pacific countries. However, like any grand strategy, how genuine these partnerships can be is dependent on how they are implemented and whether existing systemic barriers are removed.

More diverse voices needed

If we take a few steps back and look at the status of Pacific voices more generally, these themes and experiences are the same. It is a stark and timely prompt of how a lack of diversity is deeply embedded in our institutional structures and contributes to the lack of representation in influential spaces such as academia, media and governance. Dr Sereana Naepi’s recently published report "Why isn’t my Professor Pasifika?" boldly expresses the dire need for more Pasifika academics within New Zealand universities. Pasifika scholars are under-represented, undervalued and seen as tokenistic within the wider sphere of academia and this is embedded within our Eurocentric institutions.

As a Pasifika student finding my own voice within academia, I have noticed and felt these very same realities. I have been in settings where a Pasifika person speaks up, and their contribution falls on deaf ears. Until moments later a non-Pasifika person champions that same suggestion and the idea is taken on board readily. Even among my own Pacific peers, being a "young" Samoan New Zealand-born female, at times I feel confronted with the intersections of identity, culture, gender, age and status.

These reoccurring and intertwined issues have ripple effects across different spheres. Increasingly, we hear echoes of the need for inclusivity in these spaces. It is important for diverse perspectives to be included at all levels to enable more nuanced responses to issues. Diversity, if done right, is something which would truly enrich the fabric of our communities. While increasingly we acknowledge this need for change, how ready and accepting are we as a wider community to genuinely create it?

Ashalyna Noa is a PhD student at the University of Canterbury. Views expressed in this article are personal to the author. 

Main image: Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama meets Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2015. 

- Asia Media Centre