While China is not known for its deft handling of soft power, a passion in the Pacific for Chinese culture is emerging as its financial support and regional influence continues to evolve. China’s sizeable Pacific aid expansion mirrors its programmes in Africa and Southeast Asia, and while much of this spending has gone toward infrastructure projects there has been a quiet push to embed some of its most-treasured domestic pastimes into these laid-back island cultures.
In post-coup Fiji’s capital Suva, civil servants enjoy the therapeutic benefits of tai chi through a martial-arts master dispatched from Beijing. In tropical Vanuatu, table tennis and volleyball players are reaching Olympic aspirations aided by Chinese financial support.
The findings emerge from a new study by Lowy Institute research associate Dr Philippa Brant, who compiled some 500 sources to reveal an estimated au$1.9bn (€1.4bn) in Chinese aid pumped into the region in the past decade. “The challenge for the Chinese government is that they support some things that do generate goodwill but at the same time promote other projects and practices that are causing some concern,” she says. Many Pacific Islanders are worried about the proliferation of Chinese corporations in their nations, as are many in Australia, a country that has long played the role of geostrategic organiser in the Pacific.
Shahar Hameiri, a senior lecturer in international politics at Murdoch University in Perth, says Chinese aid efforts are often misunderstood by westerners. “The Chinese economy is oversupplied and this is underpinning it to push its corporations outward to find new opportunities – this is not a hegemonic strategy to take over the region or to push back on Australian or US power,” he says.
After Europeans receive citizenship to the “lucky country”, connections to distant homelands often fall by the wayside as they revel in their new lives in the sun, sea and surf. However, there is one particular day each year when national pride does run high among European ex-pats. The Eurovision Song Contest has been successfully championed by SBS, Australia’s government-funded multicultural broadcaster, for more than 30 years. The spectacle reached ratings fever pitch last year when local Jessica Mauboy blitzed a kitschy Australiana-themed half-time show. That prompted the show’s organisers to shun geographical constraints and hand Australia a wildcard for this year’s competition, which is taking place in Vienna this month. It remains to be seen which of their homelands Australia’s European contingent cheer on.
New Zealand will provide Cuban doctors, celebrated for their medical internationalism, with English-language lessons before they are dispatched to developing island nations in the South Pacific. “Cuban medical training is particularly effective as it focuses on preventative and promotional health,” says University of Sydney professor Tim Anderson. He says its efforts in Timor-Leste have been impressive, halving infant mortality rates.
But while Portuguese-speaking Timor-Leste was well suited to Cuban aid, a language barrier between Spanish and the Creole of the Pacific caused difficulties. The new training should help, though doctors may pick up a Kiwi twang.