The Geopolitics of Chinese Aid

Mapping Beijing’s Funding in the Pacific

China's President Xi Jinping speaks in the House of Representatives at Parliament House in Canberra, Australia, November 17, 2014. David Gray / Courtesy Reuters

Throughout the small islands of the Pacific, China has been expanding its foreign aid program. In the last decade, nations from Samoa to Vanuatu have received hundreds of millions in funding. Chinese aid helps these countries build much-needed infrastructure, from the National Medical Centre in Samoa, to water pipes in the Cook Islands, to university dormitories in Goroka, Papua New Guinea. China stepped up its engagement in 2006 when it held the first China–Pacific Island Countries Economic Development and Cooperation Forum, pledging increased funding to the eight countries with which it has diplomatic relations. But recipients of China’s largesse are beginning to worry about their growing indebtedness to Beijing, and traditional donors are concerned that their influence in the region is diminishing in the face of a new, generous competitor.

The problem is, however, that no one has ever been clear about how much aid China gives to the region and in what form—neither Pacific Island countries, traditional donors, nor the Chinese government can say for sure. Data collection and sharing of information among Chinese agencies are still limited. Because most aid is tied to Chinese contractors, Pacific Island governments do not always know the cost of grant-funded projects. This sometimes leads to overstatement of China’s aid by Pacific leaders seeking to trumpet the nation’s support or by commentators who mistake every Chinese activity as aid and raise suspicions about Beijing’s longer-term intentions.

There are many reasons why few accurate records of Chinese foreign aid exist: most critically, China provides little data about its aid program, and most Pacific Island governments do not publicly report the full amount of aid they receive. Further complicating statistics are the Chinese government’s public pledges of aid that, as is true with other nations, do not always turn into real projects.

It is for these reasons that the Lowy Institute undertook a project to account for China’s aid program in the Pacific. Mapping Chinese Aid in the Pacific draws on over 500 sources, including budgets,

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