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An insider’s view of China in the Pacific

Nuku'alofa, Tonga

With China’s diverse and expanding interests in the Pacific, and its rising economic and strategic strength, one can expect that Chinese presence will grow stronger in the coming decades. China’s growing regional presence is a new reality that needs to be accommodated, not resisted, but this requires great understanding of Chinese interests and views. Given the substantial difference between Chinese and Western views about China’s unique aid policy, simply requesting that China conform to rules set up by traditional aid donors is unlikely to work.

By Col. (Ret'd) Siamelie Latu

Col. (Ret’d.) Siamelie Latu is Secretary General of the Tonga China Friendship Association, a former Tongan Ambassador to China, and former Acting Secretary Foreign Affairs.


1. The term "Pacific Islands" is used herewith as “small member states of the Pacific Islands Forum.”

2. As I was reflecting on this topic and the events which have taken place in the Pacific Islands region, in relation to China's main interests in the Pacific region, the means China is pursuing these interests, and the implications of China's rise for regional powers are becoming important issues. Some analysts argue that China regards the Pacific region as a strategic asset and intends to replace the United States as the dominant power in the long run. I realised that I needed to write this article to share my experience as a Former Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Kingdom of Tonga to the People's Republic of China from 2010 to 2015.

3. China currently has diplomatic relations with eight countries - the Cook Islands (1997), Federated States of Micronesia (1989), Fiji (1975), Niue (2007), Papua New Guinea (PNG 1976), Samoa (1975), Tonga (1998), and Vanuatu (1982). China and the Solomon Islands have recently established diplomatic relations this year (2019). The move marks a setback for Taiwan, which has been separated from the mainland China since the end of civil war in 1949. Kiribati has just restored its diplomatic relations with China just before the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China. There are only few countries that have not established diplomatic relation with China. (

4. Building upon my previous work experience as a soldier and a diplomat and observation of China's diplomacy in the region over the past fifteen years, this article aims to add to the discussion by examining China's diplomacy in the Pacific Islands, focusing on China's policy in the Pacific islands; the One China Policy; and Chinese peaceful development in the Pacific islands region since the release of its White Paper in September 2011 on Peaceful Development. I must stress that, despite the fact that China will follow a peaceful development path, Beijing has emphasized that it will not compromise on issues concerning China's core interests which include "state sovereignty, national security, territorial integrity and national reunification, China's political system established by the Constitution and overall social stability, and the basic safeguard for ensuring sustainable economic and social development".

China's Policy in the Pacific Islands

5. The Chinese government has positioned its diplomatic partners in its diplomatic mapping as follows: big powers are the key; peripheral countries are the priority; developing countries are the foundation and multilateral platforms are the important stage. ( Which of these categories PICs belong, will determine the resources to be allocated by China to the region ? In 1987, China signed protocol 2 and 3 of the treaty of Rarotonga (South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty), which recognizes the Pacific as a zone free of nuclear weapons. Since 1990 China has participated as a dialogue partner in the annual "Post Forum Partners' Dialogue" of the Pacific Island Forum. The aim is to strengthen its friendly and cooperative links to the forum and its member states. During these consultations China presented its policy with regard to the South Pacific region and promised to apply the principles of mutual respect and advantage, equality and mutual prosperity, and unanimity through consultation. Hence, China is managing its relation with PICs on the pattern of its policy towards other developing countries, although PICs are not comparable to the importance of developing countries in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean. The first "China-Pacific Island Countries Economic Development and Cooperation Forum" held in Fiji in April 2006 can be seen as a fundamental new development in China-Pacific relations.

6. From a Western perspective, China's growing influence in the South Pacific is raising an increasing number of sensitive questions about the region's development and its role in regional geopolitics. On many occasions China declared that it is not seeking a sphere of influence in the PICs. Most recently during the visit of the Prime Minister of Vanuatu to Beijing in May 2019. President Xi Jinping stated clearly that China is not seeking sphere of influence in the region rather its interests in the region is based on three main means: visit diplomacy; economic leverage and practising non-interference.

The China Ministry of Foreign Affairs website recorded 235 high level visits at ministerial level above plus Foreign ministers between China and its eight Pacific diplomatic partners between 2006 and 2015. I also witnessed during my ambassadorial tenure in Beijing that PICs leaders were accorded high standard treatment similar to leaders from other countries during the visits which included the red carpet, gun salutes, reviewing the guard of honor, meeting Chinese leaders, motorcade and visiting one or two cities besides Beijing.

7. Using the economic tool, including closer trading relations and providing foreign aid, has been China's second main means to wield influence in the Pacific. Since the inauguration of the China-Pacific Economic Development and Cooperation Forum in April 2006, the average annual growth rate of China-PICs trade reached 27 per cent between 2006 and 2012 for example.

8. China's third means to wield influence in the Pacific is by practicing the principle of non-interference in PICs internal affairs. This principle has been listed as one of the cornerstones of Chinese foreign policy since 1950s - the five principles of peaceful coexistence. The Fiji case is an excellent example of how China used its non-interference policy to bolster relations with the PICs. After the 2006 military coup in Fiji, the interim government led by Prime Minister Bainimarama received tough economic and travel sanctions from traditional powers such as Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Britain. Fiji was even suspended from the Commonwealth and the Pacific Islands Forum. China has insisted that countries, big or small, are equal members of the international community and should be treated as equal.

9. During President Xi's visit to Fiji to meet Pacific Islands' Leaders in 2014 he expounded China's policy and measures to enhance with the PICs in new era, stressing that China is a sincere friend and partner of the PICS. He clarified that both people have a "natural sense of amity" toward each other. Noting that China and Pacific island countries are all developing countries in the Asia-Pacific region, and PICs have been good friends who treat each other with sincerity and mutual respect, good partners who work together for development and mutual benefits.

10. What is crucial in this meeting is that President Xi admitted that China will respect the islands countries' own choice of social systems and development paths in accordance with their national conditions, and support the countries' efforts to manage and decide on regional affairs in their own way as well as its participation in international affairs to safeguard its legitimate right. It is also important to note that China is ready to expand government -to-government, legislature-to-legislature and party-to-party interactions with the island countries, and will continue to advance the China-Pacific Island Countries Economic Development and Cooperation Forum and other regular dialogue. He also referred to his proposal on the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road and invite PICs to take a ride on the Chinese "express train" of development, I have no doubt, PICs will reap tangible benefits from the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road and the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank which will generate important opportunities for the island countries.

11. Balanced Framework Approach . There has been a growing concern about China's diplomatic charm offensive in the Pacific Islands but I realised the fact that China has limited strategic, diplomatic and economic investment in the region. China's approach to the Pacific Islands Countries (PICs) is not different from its approach to other developing world, which is not driven by its strategic competition with the United States and is not reducible to a specific set of interests such as natural resources exploration and competition with Taiwan. The region of the Pacific Islands is important for China's national reunification and long-term development strategy but it is marginal in China's military strategy ( China will coordinate with other countries in various fields and help build a stable and balanced framework for its relations with other countries. And as a significant partner of developing countries, China will work to strengthen unity and deepen cooperation with other developing countries based on the principle of sincerity, practical results, amity and good faith.

12. The then Chinese Premier Mr Wen Jiabao during the first "China-Pacific Island Countries Economic Development and Cooperation Forum" held in Fiji in April 2006 emphasized that both China as well as the PICs are developing nations. He offered an approach based on peaceful coexistence, equality and respect for existing social system as well as support for efforts to ensure sovereignty and independence. The promise is to give the PICs development aid without political preconditions applied ("no string attached").

13. Principle of Sincerity and Practicality. China upholds the principles of sincerity, real results, amity and good faith to strengthen cooperation with Pacific island countries, China do not have private interests in the PICs, and do not seek a so-called ‘sphere of influence'. This statement was declared by President Xi during the visit of the Prime Minister of Vanuatu to Beijing 28 May 2019. China will always be a reliable good friend and partner, no matter big or small, strong or weak, rich or poor, are equal members of the international community. China will continue to work in close collaboration with the PICs to strengthen unity and deepen cooperation based on the principle of sincerity, real results, amity and good faith.

14. China's Aid to the Pacific Islands. China has increased its diplomatic investment in the Pacific region over the last decade. The first China Pacific Island Countries Economic Development and Cooperation Forum was held 2006. The very first time for the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao to visit Fiji and inaugurated the China - Pacific Economic Development and Cooperation Forum. China announced US492 million in concessional loans to the region, contributed to the growing influence of the PRC in the region. Another US$1 billion in concessional loans was announced at the 2nd China‐Pacific Forum in 2013. Similarly, President Xi Jinping became the first Chinese President to visit Fiji in November 2014, and he announced the decision to elevate China's friendly and cooperative relationship with the Pacific Island Countries (PICs) to a strategic partnership, which shows Beijing's growing emphasis on the Pacific region Chinese aid to PICs has increased rapidly, totalling RMB 9.4 billion (US$1.45 billion) by November 2013.

15. China disbursed approximately US$850 million in bilateral aid to the eight Pacific Island countries that recognise the PRC between 2006 and 2011 (Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Niue, Papua New Guinea (PNG), Samoa, Tonga, and Vanuatu). As a point of comparison, Australian aid to the Pacific Islands in the same period totalled US$4.8 billion (Hayward‐Jones 2013). in November 2013, a new regional assistance package was announced at the 2nd China‐Pacific Islands Countries Forum in Guangzhou. The most significant outcome was the announcement of up to US$1 billion in concessional finance, to be provided over four years (Xu & Zhao 2013). China also announced a commercial loan facility of US$1 billion, administered through China Development Bank (CDB). (

16. Strategic Role of China in the Pacific Islands. Strategic partnership between China and the PICs was announced during the first state visit of the Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2014 to Fiji to meet PICs' Leaders. First, is to build a strategic partnership featuring mutual and common development. China's role is to respect social system and development path chosen by each of the PICs in line with their national conditions. Second, Enhance high level exchanges. China would welcome leaders of the PICs to visit China, thus to well outline strategic planning and top-level designing for bilateral relations, Third, deepen practical cooperation, Fourth, expand people to people's and cultural exchanges. China offered so far 2000 scholarship opportunities and 5000 study and training places of all kinds to the PICs, Fifth, intensify multilateral coordination, China is willing to enhance communication with all PICs in global governance, poverty, reduction, disaster relief, food security, energy, security, humanitarian assistance, and other issues.

17. Its political role is to reinforce China’s political ties with the region, and economically is to explore potential economic opportunities for mutually beneficial development through increased trade, investment and aid, exploring the Oceania market, pursing economic interests and improving China’s influences in the region. Chinese interests in the region reflect the country’s new-found economic strength and evolving diplomatic and economic agendas.

One China Principle versus One China Policy

18. The "One China Principle is advocated by China, that there is only one China, and Taiwan is a part of China. One China Policy, however, is the formulation of solution on Taiwan framed by the US and governments around the world that do not officially recognize the ROC.

19. When we talk about the Taiwan issue, there is one essential prerequisite – the “One-China Principle.” To be specific, the principle emphasizes that there is only one China in the world; the Government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is the only legitimate government representing the whole of China; and Taiwan is an inalienable part of China’s territory.

20. During my tenure in Beijing as Tongan Ambassador, I discussed this issue of Taiwan with many friends in the government and NGOs. At some stages I stood as an opposition to the discussion. What moved me was that my fellow class mate at the National Defense University of the PLA advised me in the most simplest example. "A father and a son and the father told the son. My dear son, you can do whatever you want to do but always remember you will always be my son".

21. The One-China Principle is the key foundation of China and Taiwan policy, and a binding commitment of all countries that have diplomatic ties with China. It includes the idea that countries around the globe maintain and develop friendship and cooperation with China.

22. Over the years, the One-China Principle has been followed by almost every country in the world and has been established as a basic norm of international relations. Recently, a group of the remaining countries have successively severed their “diplomatic ties” with Taiwan and normalized relations with China. The phenomenon fully testified that the Principle is the shared aspiration of the international community and an irresistible trend of our times.

23. In October 1971, the 26th session of the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution No. 2758. It announced in clear and definite language that “the representative of the Government of the People’s Republic of China is the sole legal representative of China in the United Nations... and [that member states] recognize the representatives of the PRC government as the sole legal representatives of China in the United Nations Organization.” From then on, China’s representation in the United Nations has been thoroughly resolved politically and legally, in a manner strictly adhering to the UN procedures.

My view on these current developments.

24. The Future of Taiwan. On 16 January 2016, Tsai Ing-Wen won the presidential election. Tsai was inaugurated as president on 20 May 2016. After her election, Tsai was named one of "The 100 Most Influential People" in TIME magazine 2 May 2016 issue. However, since her election, the future of Taiwan was not looking good because the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) did not put priority on trying to call for unity and creation of a better life for all Taiwanese. Instead, DPP focused on taking revenge on Kuomintang (KMT) the Nationalist Party of China (NPC) They put forward policies that benefits DPP supporters and hurts KMT supporters as if the 23 millions Taiwanese going up against a 1.3 billion China is not challenging enough. DPP sought to divide Taiwan even more.

25. In referring to DPP and KMT, both of these political parties focus on the past historical conflicts instead of looking towards future, both parties only try to please their base voters, try to win elections, and never give the entire Taiwanese long term future any consideration. Under such political environment, the government officials are increasingly bureaucratic, focus only to cover their course of action. Tsai government is so good at making empty and impractical political promises. Non-nuclear power, Taiwan Silicon Valley, new Southbound policy, all extremely challenging political dreams with no real capable and experienced practitioners to carry them out.

26. Comparing the current Taiwan government to the Taiwan government in the 80s, we can clearly see the difference and why Taiwan was able to gain such explosive growth in the 80s but completely stagnated in the last 20 or so years. Taiwan government back in the 80s focused on growth, focused on the long term fundamentals. Government officials were busy architecting Taiwan’s future and developing practical and workable economic policies.

27. While Taiwan is faltering, China is growing the economy, military strength, and diplomatic relationship around the world exponentially. But what Tsai government choose to do in response to China’s rise. They choose to ignore the 1992 consensus reached by the previous Ma government, again pandering to their base, and cause the two side to practically stop any dialog and exchange. While China is gaining power and influence,Tsai choose to disengage China, hoping the problems will all go away. In refusing to recognise the importance of Taiwan-China relationship, refusing to admit Taiwan's economy dependency on China. With all these issues mostly created by the internal Taiwan politics, there is really little hope for Taiwan’s future.

28. China's Pacific Influence Grows. China and former Taiwan ally the Solomon Islands established diplomatic ties on Saturday 21 September, 2019. In fact, Beijing has won over two previous Taiwanese allies in the Pacific - the Solomon Islands and Kiribati. The decision made by the Solomon Islands was based on a strategic decision, a transparent decision and a natural decision. Taiwan has only 15 countries, mostly small and poor nations in Latin America and the Pacific, including Nauru, Tuvalu and Palau. There are only a handful of countries who have not yet established diplomatic relations with China. There is a belief that more and more visionary people in these countries will speak for justice in keeping wth the overriding trend of the times.

29. The Tonga China Friendship Association guided Solomon Islands as to the normalisation of its diplomatic relations with China. Solomon Islands is a member of the Pacific China Friendship Association (PCFA). We encouraged Solomon Islands to establish its Embassy in Beijing as soon as possible but until the Solomon Islands Government and PRC Government make a decision on Embassy, PCFA Pacific China House located at the Diplomatic Compound (with other Embassies) could be used in the interim.

30. The Republic of Kiribati first established official diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China in 1980, and maintained them for twenty-three years. The Republic of China began providing economic aid to Kiribati, while Kiribati began supporting Taiwan in the United Nations. On 27 September, 2019 China and Kiribati has just resumed their diplomatic ties. Kiribati announced that it was cutting relations with self-ruled Taiwan in favor of China, which claims Taiwan as a wayward province with no right to state-to-state ties. . Kiribati is the seventh to drop Taiwan as a diplomatic ally since 2016 when Tsai took office.

31. As part of the new developments in the PICs is the establishment on the 26th of October, at Nuku'alofa, Kingdom of Tonga of the Pacific China Friendship Association. Pacific China Friendship Association Membership is as follows:

Year 2016

  1. Australia. Convener, Anthony Leong, Counsellor: John Breheny
  2. Hawaii (USA).
  3. Federated States of Micronesia.
  4. Fiji. Counsellor, Bernadette Rounds-Ganilau
  5. French Polynesia. President, Dr. Hiria Ottino
  6. New Zealand. Counsellors: Danny Tauroa, George Andrews
  7. Tonga. Patron,The Princess Royal, Her Royal Highness, Princess Sālote Mafile'o Pilolevu Tuita
  8. Vanuatu. Counsellor, Elaine Lam.

Year 2017

  1. New Caledonia
  2. Solomon Islands

Year 2018

  1. Niue
  2. Palau
  3. Samoa

32. The aims of the PCFA is to promote friendship and understanding between Pacific Friendship Associations and China. Encourage the establishment of China Friendship Association in the Pacific region; To promote and participate in projects of mutual support each other as friends and allies in the development of our objectives and activities; To regularly disseminate information between Members regarding regional matters and China; To strive and correct misunderstanding, inaccuracies, or misleading information published about any Member or China. To sponsor or provide as far as practicable, assistance and/or material aid or information to Members: To enter into strategic partnership with other like organisation in order to advance the aims of the Association and at national level, each national Friendship Association operates autonomously from PCFA.

33. In 2018, PCFA has signed a Strategic cooperation agreement with Pacific Islands Development forum (PIDF) , who drives, through regional and national frameworks, transformative changes by focusing exclusively on the sustainable and inclusive development of the Pacific small island developing countries and territories and people. PIDF and PCFA are now working on a series of projects that PCFA would like to propose to Project Division for the South \Cooperation Assistance Fund.


34. Given China’s diverse and expanding regional interests, and its rising economic and strategic strength, one can expect that Chinese presence in the region will only grow stronger in the coming decades. China’s growing regional presence is a new reality that needs to be accommodated, not resisted. On the one hand, Chinese activism in the region has provided important developmental opportunities for regional countries. On the other hand, given Beijing’s expanding ties with Pacific Island states, resisting Chinese influence will only lead to a zero-sum strategic competition that could divide the region. Accommodating China’s role, however, requires great understanding of Chinese interests and views. Given the substantial difference between Chinese and Western views about China’s unique aid policy, effective aid coordination between China and other aid donors must be based on a two way socialization process, with both sides acknowledging the merits of each other’s aid practices. Simply requesting that China conform to rules set up by traditional aid donors is unlikely to work; other donors might need to consider how to refine their own aid approaches by learning from the positive aspects of Chinese practices.