International Development Minister Concetta Fierravanti-Wells told The Australian, China’s influence in the Pacific was “clearly growing”, but the country’s financial assistance to island nations was resulting in “white elephants”.
“You’ve got the Pacific full of these useless buildings which nobody maintains, which are basically white elephants … I’ve gone to islands and you’ll be driving along on some back road and all of a sudden you see this Chinese road crew building a road to nowhere and you think ‘Hmm, what’s all that about?’” she said.
She also told the publication there was no doubt China was “duchessing” politicians in the Pacific.
In some cases, politicians had directly benefited from development projects.
The Australian reported Cook Island MPs had received free quad bikes as part of a donation of agricultural equipment from the Chinese government in 2015.
Fierravanti-Wells said there were concerns China’s loans to South Pacific nations had unfavourable terms.
There were growing loan applications to the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank by Pacific nations, but their terms were clearly set out.
She said: “We don’t know what the consequences are when (nations) have to pay back some of these Chinese loans.”
Fierravanti-Wells said Pacific countries were struggling to maintain donated facilities and some nations were concerned about the use of foreign workers in aid projects.
“Over my visits, I have come across a number of non-productive infrastructure where no provision is made for maintenance and therefore the buildings are not used to full capacity.”
Lowy Institute Pacific Islands programme director Jonathan Pryke told the publication the minister had a legitimate point.
“Any of these projects (and there are quite a few) that have “sport” or “conference” in the description, you can guarantee are not going to get you a return on investment, especially if they are built with a loan.
“The same goes for mammoth government buildings.”
Rarotonga has several buildings constructed by the Chinese, including the Ministry of Justice, the police headquarters, the Bluesky Sports Arena and more recently Apii Nikao, which is nearing completion. The first three have suffered problems due to poor quality materials and construction, and require remedial work. One report put the cost of the repair work at $800,000-plus.
Last year the courthouse steps had to be re-tiled after a lawyer slipped on them and broke his arm. The repair work took many months.
When Fierravanti-Wells visited Rarotonga from October 23 to 25 last year, she met with prime minister Henry Puna to discuss “common interests” in the region, including economic reliance, regional security and climate change.
She also visited a number of local organisations as well as the police patrol boat Te Kukupa.
- NT News/CS