America is the Pacific region’s second-biggest giver of aid, contributing $1.7 billion between 2006 and 2013. But more than half of that went to the country’s satellite states in Micronesia, such as Guam and the Northern Marianas. When Hillary Clinton, then America’s secretary of state, attended the Pacific Islands Forum in the Cook Islands in 2012, she promised the region more attention. It was all of a piece with President Barack Obama’s vaunted “rebalancing” of America’s strategic posture towards Asia and the Pacific. Yet aid, expected to rise, has remained inactive.
By contrast the expansion of Chinese help has been striking. At a summit in 2013 in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, China pledged tariff reductions on imports from islands in the South Pacific and $1 billion in preferential loans to them. China’s president, Xi Jinping, visited Fiji in November 2014, promising yet more development loans. China’s aid to the troubled island republic has since grown.
For most Pacific Islanders, the most obvious sign of China’s increased presence is domestic migration. This diaspora, made up mostly of small-scale traders, has happened independently of China’s aid push. Indeed it is prospering in some of the Pacific countries that recognise Taiwan (and thus have no diplomatic links with China). Riots in 2006 in the Solomon Islands and Tonga, and again in 2009 in Papua New Guinea, targeted such Chinese, and in some cases China evacuated its citizens. In the Pacific, China’s attention may before long be taken up with having to protect its overseas workers more.