China lodges diplomatic complaint following minister's comments

The Nauru detention centre on 13 August after the rioting and fires which destroyed much of it. THE AGE . news . 15 AUGUST 2013 . photo from Canstruct, the construction company rebuilding it . story by Bianca Hall  .
The Nauru detention centre on 13 August after the rioting and fires which destroyed much of it. THE AGE . news . 15 AUGUST 2013 . photo from Canstruct, the construction company rebuilding it . story by Bianca Hall .
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - October 15, 2017: SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - SMH NEWS: 151017: Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop addresses a media press conference in Sydney follwing threats made to Australia by North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un. (Photo by James Alcock/Fairfax Media).

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - October 15, 2017: SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - SMH NEWS: 151017: Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop addresses a media press conference in Sydney follwing threats made to Australia by North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un. (Photo by James Alcock/Fairfax Media).

Beijing: Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has weighed into the row over China's Pacific aid program, criticising loans that "impose onerous debt burdens on regional governments".

China lodged a diplomatic complaint on Wednesday, labelling an attack on its Pacific aid program by Turnbull government minister Concetta Fierravanti-Wells as "full of ignorance and prejudice".

Fierravanti-Wells, international development minister, earlier accused China of building useless buildings, white elephants and "roads to nowhere" in the Pacific.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang responded by saying China's aid program had "brought real benefits to local people" and had been welcomed by Pacific governments.

Australia is the largest aid donor in the region, and focuses on health and education. China, the second-largest donor, has focused on infrastructure projects.

China and Taiwan have been engaged in a race to provide aid to Pacific nations for the past two decades, as the price for diplomatic recognition.

While Taiwan focuses on "budgetary support" to Pacific governments, China has provided loans.

Six of only 20 nations globally that give diplomatic recognition to Taiwan are in the Pacific: Nauru, the Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Palau, Kiribati, and the Marshall Islands.

Eight Pacific nations recognise China as per the One-China policy: Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Fiji, Niue, Samoa and Tonga, Cook Islands and Micronesia.

Bishop said government "welcomes investment in developing nations in the Pacific that supports sustainable economic growth, and which does not impose onerous debt burdens on regional governments."

Australian academic Joel Atkinson, an expert on Chinese and Taiwanese aid at the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, said rather than being a problem for the Pacific nations receiving huge sums of money, the major downside was for Chinese taxpayers.

"It is a waste of Chinese money. It is going to places that won't be able to pay it back. China is offering loans to countries that other donors are not willing to fund," he said.

"Those Pacific countries can always turn to Taiwan if China is not willing to waive their debt."

Taiwan's aid program was a major part of its foreign policy, he said.

In 2006, Taiwan's then president Chen Shui-bian offered Pacific countries $US10 million ($12.7 million) in aid for the diplomatic backing and support for its bid for recognition at the World Health Organisation, which China opposes.

The same year, allegations that Taiwan had funded political candidates in Solomon Islands elections led to riots that destroyed Chinatown in Honiara.

The continuing rivalry for Pacific favour between Taiwan and China was highlighted last May, as Fiji closed its representative office in Taiwan within days of Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama attending Chinese President Xi Jinping's Belt and Road summit in Beijing.

The dependence of Nauru, which has been pivotal to Australia's offshore processing regime, on Taiwanese cash was exposed by Wikileaks cables in 2011 which revealed Nauruan politicians received a secret $5000 monthly stipend for continuing recognition of Taiwan.

Atkinson said Taiwan stepped in with a loan to maintain Nauru's only passenger airline when Australia refused to do so.

Taiwan's new president, Tsai Ing-wen, toured the Pacific in November to shore up support among its allies, raising the prospect of a resurgence of "cheque book diplomacy".

Atkinson said that in the past, Australia had been critical of Taiwan's erratic funding interventions in regional politics, and had preferred the Chinese loan program.

Australia's recent criticism was in line with long-standing US support for Taiwan as a counter-balance to China in the Pacific, he said.

Chinese tabloid The Global Times reported the latest diplomatic row between Australia and China, concluding: "As a superpower in Oceania, Australia regards the South Pacific island nation as its own backyard and is extremely wary of the influence from outside the region."

The Lowy Institute, which tracks aid in the Pacific, said China had spent $2.3 billion in the past decade, much in the form of loans.

Labor Senator Penny Wong said the Turnbull Government's attack on the Chinese program was "clumsy", and accused the federal government of cutting Australia overseas aid.

"Simply lashing out at China every time the government is in trouble isn't a good way to deal with a relationship that is of very great economic importance to Australia," Wong told the ABC.

This story China lodges diplomatic complaint following minister's comments first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.