Thu, Aug 30, 2018 - Page 1 News List

West plans bigger Pacific footprint to counter China

VYING FOR INFLUENCE:Beijing has spent US$1.3 billion on concessionary loans and gifts since 2011 to become the Pacific’s second-largest donor after Australia

Reuters, SYDNEY

The US, Australia, France and Britain plan to open new embassies in the Pacific, boost staffing levels and engage with leaders of island nations more often in a bid to counter China’s rising influence in the region, sources have said.

The battle for influence in the Pacific matters because each of the tiny island states has a vote at international forums such as the UN and they also control vast swathes of resource-rich ocean.

China has spent US$1.3 billion on concessionary loans and gifts since 2011 to become the Pacific’s second-largest donor after Australia, stoking concern in the West that several nations could end up overburdened and in debt to Beijing.

In response, Australia, New Zealand and the US have said they would increase economic aid and expand their diplomatic presence to countries in the region, government officials and diplomats said.

“We are concerned about Chinese practices that lead to unsustainable debt,” said a US government source with direct knowledge of Washington’s plan for the region, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The US official said Washington needed to have adequate representation in the Pacific countries to let their governments know what options were open to them.

China’s embassy in Australia did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Beijing was careful to ensure that borrowers were able to meet debt repayments, Chinese Ambassador to Australia Cheng Jingye (成競業) said earlier this year.

Government representatives for Australia, Britain, France and the US in Canberra did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The US government source said the US would boost diplomatic staffing numbers in Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia and potentially Fiji within the next two years.

The Australian government is expected to name its first High Commissioner to Tuvalu within weeks, rushing to fill a post Canberra decided upon establishing only several months ago, said a government source who declined to be identified as he is not authorized to talk to the media.

Britain would open new High Commissions in Vanuatu, Tonga and Samoa by the end of May next year, while French President Emmanuel Macron is seeking to organize a meeting of Pacific leaders early next year, diplomatic and government sources have said.

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