China's growing role in the Pacific Islands region is of increasing interest. Over a decade ago, an article published under the alarmist title 'Dragon in Paradise: China's Rising Star in Oceania' (1) began what became a heated debate. Initially the alarmists held sway and those who pointed to potential opportunities as well as challenges were in a small minority. Early in the debate, the voices most clearly heard were those of Australians, New Zealanders and Americans, usually warning loudly of the dangers for the region that a more powerful China would bring. Gradually discussion became more balanced, (2) and in 2011 Dr Jian Yang published a comprehensive study on the subject. (3)
Surprisingly, in retrospect, these discussions paid little heed to Pacific Islands views. They certainly existed: while debate continued among outside observers on the best way to deal with China in the Pacific, most Pacific Islands governments were quietly developing solid bilateral relations with Beijing or, in some cases, with Taipei. But, reflecting perhaps a paternalism derived from colonial times, no-one thought to give their clear views prominence.
That has now changed. The recent (February) conference held at Fale Samoa on the campus of the National University of Samoa on 'China and the Pacific: The View from Oceania' was the brainchild of the New Zealand Contemporary Research Centre based at Victoria University of Wellington. A three-way partnership was formed with National University of Samoa in Apia and Sun Yat-sen University of Guangzhou. It was agreed that National University of Samoa would host the conference, which would be supported by all three universities.
From the outset, it was agreed the conference would break new ground in three respects:
* priority would be given to views from the Pacific Islands
* the conference itself would be held within the Pacific Islands region (in Samoa) and
* it would provide opportunities for perspectives to be exchanged between scholars and officials from the Pacific Islands, on the one hand, and China, on the other.
While there was no attempt to reach agreed conclusions or positions, impressions which most participants took away with them will have included a clear sense that China is in the Pacific to stay, that its influence is likely to increase and that Pacific Islands countries need to acknowledge and accommodate that. China's growing role will pose challenges for countries of the region. But Chinese participants were emphatic that China wanted to cooperate with them and they also emphasised the valuable opportunities that China can bring.
Inevitably, co-operation between China and Pacific countries has sometimes been difficult. Concerns were clearly expressed by participants. But overall the clear sense of participants was that Pacific governments increasingly believe co-operation with China can be valuable for them. A positive atmosphere seemed to be developing between Beijing and the capitals of the region --one participant commented that it was attributable at least in part to a growing confidence on the part of Pacific leaders that they had more control over their nations' destinies than they have had in the past. There was increasing 'Pacific Island agency', as one participant put it.
Traditional partners of Pacific Islands countries also have no alternative but to adapt to the changes flowing from China's rise. New Zealand has begun to do so, particularly in the field of development co-operation.
The tone for the conference was set by Samoa's Prime Minister Tuilaepa Lupesoliai Sailele Malielegaoi in his opening address. He agreed that China's strong and increasing influence in the Pacific warranted the conference's dedicated examination of the implications. He went on:
The singling out however of a country and its motives sometimes creates an implicit impression that all is not quite what it seems and there are conspiracies afoot. It is a sentiment that would easily attend discussions of 'what China wants' with its growing strength, the ubiquity of its diaspora and not least the often relentless pursuit by the media of perceptions of China's levels of assertiveness in promoting and securing its interests ... [O]bjectivity is clearly very important to the exchanges and outcomes of your conference to help inform the policy-makers not just in Beijing and in the Oceania capitals but in those of all the international actors from outside the region presently active or intending to be so in the Pacific. We read and hear of the views of analysts and observers that point to colliding interests and inevitable rivalry between a rising China and the United States ... with the worrying prospects of confrontation and even conflict. It would be most interesting to receive the objective scholarly and expert examination that your conference will bring to bear...