Mapping China’s opaque aid program in the Pacific Islands was more complicated and time-consuming than I had anticipated. I made peace with this fact when I found myself building a makeshift 270-degree visual cocoon out of every electronic device in my apartment so that I could cross-check the various colour-drenched excel spreadsheets feeding into the Lowy Institute’s updated Chinese aid in the Pacific map.
Earlier this month, the Lowy Institute’s Melanesia program launched a major update to the Institute’s flagship research mapping project on Chinese Aid in the Pacific. The map now contains a decade of Chinese government aid activities in the Pacific Islands region, making it a valuable resource for anyone working on and interested in the region's shifting geopolitical landscape. Kudos to the map’s original architect, Dr Phillippa Brant, who set incredibly high standards for the project and left big shoes to fill. Here's how we did it.
A Chinese-language researcher was hired to help crawl through Chinese Government budget documents, embassy pages and media articles. With the odd exception, Chinese translations helped confirm what we already knew and provided another source to underpin project classifications. Pacific Government budget documents were a necessary input to extract information for large projects, particularly those which have received little media attention. However, these figures were often optimistic estimates and weren’t always a reflection of what was (or wasn’t) occurring on the ground.
More than 660 sources fed into the updated map, but thousands more potential sources were searched and discounted along the way.
I encountered the usual combination of obstacles when trying to map even the smallest of grants: incorrect figures cited by the media, overlapping projects and announcements, missing budget documents and confusion about the true origin of the funds. Hours could be spent on research, only to discover that while a particular grant may have been publicly handed over by the Chinese embassy, the funds actually originated from a Chinese community association, a business association (see 'Olympus donation') or a provincial government.
Other reported flows of funds, including an A$99,500 ‘One China’ grant to Vanuatu and an A$332,500 donation to Fiji (to compensate for the cost of President Xi Jinping’s 2014 state visit) were tracked but considered outside the scope of development assistance.
Follow the trail of money online (especially via Facebook)
There is no substitute for in-field research. But when the budget doesn’t allow for hundreds of site visits across dozens of islands and when many official websites haven’t been updated in years (and are often coated in malware), social media becomes invaluable.
Thanks to continued mobile broadband growth, Facebook is now a vital source of information for understanding political and social developments in the Pacific Islands region. Public profiles, discussion groups, images and videos posted on the platform provide a window into how capital cities, rural towns and even local debates are impacted and shaped by China’s development assistance and expanding engagement. Analysing images and extracting metadata from Facebook (ie. dates, locations, media type) often provided crucial missing pieces and final confirmation that a project has indeed entered the construction phase.
There are plenty of Chinese aid projects (potentially) around the corner
It is worth noting what is not on the map. There are a lot of projects we researched but could not include for a variety of reasons. Some seem to have permanently stalled. Others have been announced but haven’t actually started. For example, Samoa has lined up funding for a police and overseas peacekeeping facility, a US$50 million China Exim Bank loan is in the pipeline to upgrade Dili’s drainage system in Timor-Leste (although there are setbacks), and maintenance repairs are planned for China-constructed buildings in the Cook Islands.
Another project in the works is PNG’s proposed National Broadband Network (NBN) which is majority funded by a $US59 million China EximBank loan. Huawei signed on to be the NBN technology partner in 2013 and Prime Minister O’Neill touted the project back in 2014. But since then information has been scant and with little concrete proof the project has begun, it was decided to omit it from the map.
Project run-off: Who else is settling into the region?
One of the interesting parts of working on a project like this, especially one with a heavy online component, is keeping an eye on what else and who else pops up on the fringes. Like China, most of the region’s newer and re-emerging partners are concentrating their resources in PNG and Fiji.
As previously covered by The Interpreter earlier in the year, Fiji has been on the receiving end of $A11.5 million worth of military ‘donations’ from Russia. This relationship is one to watch. It's hard to imagine Fiji-Russia relations taking off, but newly established bilateral mechanisms offer plenty of opportunities for the security-heavy relationship to expand.
Israel, via its Ministry of Foreign Affairs and its development agency, has started providing aid to PNG and the Marshall Islands in the form of humanitarian assistance and professional training support. In a strange development, Israel also provides defence and intelligence support to PNG. Taiwan’s overseas development program is small but continues to have a surprisingly broad presence in the region, including in Pacific Island states that recognise China. It was surprising to find a fair bit of activity in Bougainville, where Taiwan has funded IT centres and computers, donated solar panels and provided agriculture training.
It was recently announced that South Korea is setting up a regional foreign aid office in Fiji. South Korean ICT experts will be spending more time in PNG and the the country's navy is now also a regular regional visitor. But it's a $US300 million PNG-South Korea port agreement that signals South Korea's clear fisheries interests in the Pacific Islands.
One of the most interesting developments is India’s increased aid engagement in the region, particularly in PNG. A string of rare high-level visits culminated in an announcement this year that the Indian Government, through the Exim Bank of India, offered and signed a US$100 million credit line with PNG for infrastructure financing and HIV/AIDs medication. Also in the pipeline in PNG is a 'centre of excellence' for information and technology. Earlier in the year India provided assistance when Cyclone Winston devastated Fiji and has offered to help the Fjiian Government (as has China) with a proposed new naval base and officer training.
China Exim Bank funding and money laundering
While social media content helped flesh out details of new Chinese aid projects, a lack of visible media and social media coverage also prompted questions, particularly when sizeable amounts of development money were budgeted and allegedly being spent.
For example, it’s hard to tell whether PNG’s 'distance education network community college' — which is being funded with a US$35 million EximBank loan — ever eventuated. The mysterious project was recently caught up in a high-profile money laundering case in Singapore after authorities detected suspicious transactions that led to the bank account of former PNG Prime Minister Michael Somare (of which he denies knowledge). PNG Government budget documents report the project funds are currently in a trust managed by law firm Young & Williams Lawyers (who were the subject of 2015 investigations by SBS and Fairfax).
This development, which may unravel further and is gathering steam across PNG's online discussion forums, should spook Chinese Government officials working in the region. An opaque aid program is already a tough sell in the Pacific Islands where mistrust, misinformation, frustrations and resentment about China's regional intentions abound.
Foreign aid programs are important tools of soft power and therefore linkages between aid and corruption, whether concrete, alleged or completely unfounded, equates to terrible PR for any donor. This is particularly true for China, which is already undergoing its own anti-corruption crackdown and dealing with domestic debates that charity should begin at home. PNG, a country marred by its own corruption issues, is wasting no time in lining up more Chinese concessional loans. The Chinese Government needs to make sure it steers well clear of any future allegations of corruption. Providing greater transparency around development assistance is the crucial first step.