China’s Shandong Province expands its footprint to the Pacific

Photo: FILE

While Japan’s discharge of nuclear-contaminated waters into the Pacific from its Fukushima nuclear plant was drawing flak right across the Pacific, a high-powered delegation of Chinese ocean and marine scientists and Asia-Pacific scholars from Shandong Province visited Fiji promoting South-South cooperation to mitigate climatic change—Pacific Islands’ biggest security threat.

Facilitated by the Chinese Embassy in Fiji, Shandong Province and Fiji signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to exchange scholars and experts from the provincial institution to assist the Pacific Island nation in the agriculture sector.

At the signing event, Agriculture Minister Vatimi Rayalu said that Fiji and China have a successful history of cooperating in agriculture. He told Fiji Broadcasting Corporation that this initiative is critical to agricultural production to promote heightened collaboration among key stakeholders and help Fiji connect to the vast Chinese market.

Shandong Province has a 3000 km coastline with a population of 100 million. It is China’s third largest provincial economy, with a GDP of CNY 8.3 trillion (USD$1.3 trillion) in 2021—equivalent to Mexico’s GDP. The province has also played a major role in Chinese civilisation and is a cultural centre for Confucianism, Taoism and Chinese Buddhism.

On 30 August, during a day-long conference at the University of the South Pacific (USP) under the theme of sustainable development of small island states, scholars from Shandong Province and the Pacific exchanged ideas on cooperation in the sphere of the ocean and marine sciences, and education, development and cultural areas.

In a keynote address to the conference, Fiji’s Education Minister Aseri Radrodro welcomed China’s assistance to foster a scholars’ exchange program and share best practices for improved teaching and learning processes. He said, “We are restrategizing our diplomatic relations via education platforms disturbed by the pandemic.”

Emphasising that respect is an essential ingredient of Pacific cultures, he welcomed Chinese interest in Pacific cultures. Also, he invited China to assist Fiji and the region in areas such as marine sciences, counselling, medical services, IT, human resource management, and education policies and management.

“Overall, sustainable development for Small Island States requires a realistic approach that integrates social, economic, and environmental considerations and collaborations among governments, civil society, international organisations, and the private sector that is essential for achieving sustainable development goals,” he told delegates.

Radrodro invited more Chinese scholars to visit the Pacific to increase cultural understanding between the regions and suggested developing a school exchange program between Fiji and China for young people to understand each other.

Chinese ambassador to Fiji, Zhou Jian, pointed out that China and the Pacific Island Countries (PICs) are connected by the Pacific Ocean and in a spirit of South-South cooperation, China already has over 20 development cooperation projects in the region (he listed them) and 10 sister city arrangements across the region.

Pointing out that his province’s institutions have some of the prominent scholars in the world on climatic change action and marine technology, Vice Chairman of Shandong Provincial Committee, Wang Shujian, said he hopes that these institutions would help to build a human community with a shared future in the Pacific.

Many Chinese speakers reflected in their presentations that their cooperative ventures would be in line with the Chinese government’s current international collaboration push known as the ‘Global Development Initiative’. This initiative has eight priority areas: poverty alleviation, food security, pandemic response and vaccines, financing for development, climate change and green development, industrialization, digital economy, and connectivity in the digital era.

Jope Koroisavou of the Ministry of iTaukei (indigenous) affairs explained that the ‘Blue Pacific’ leaders in the region talk about is a way of life that “bridges our past with our future,” and it is important to re-establish the balance between taking and giving to nature. He listed three takeaways in this respect: cultural resilience and preservation, eco-system stewardship and conservation, and community component and inclusive decision-making.

Prof Yang Jingpeng from the Centre for South Pacific Studies at Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications acknowledged that they need to learn from indigenous knowledge, where indigenous people are closely connected to the environment.

Bio-diversity, climate action, South-South cooperation

“They play an important role in protecting biodiversity,” he noted. “Their knowledge of nature will be greatly beneficial to address climatic change”. He expressed the wish that under South-South cooperation, their centre would be able to work with this knowledge and scientific methodologies to mitigate climatic change.

Mesake Koroi noted that we need to get over the idea that because indigenous villagers practice subsistence farming, they are poor when, in fact, they are rich in traditional knowledge, which is important to address the development and environmental challenges of today.

“Using this traditional knowledge, people don’t go out fishing when the winds are blowing in the wrong direction or the moon is not in the correct place”, he noted. “In my village, ten thousand trees will be planted this year to confront climatic change.”

On an angry note, he referred to Japan’s dumping of nuclear-contaminated water to the Pacific Ocean using a purely “scientific” argument, which he described as “inexcusable vulgar, crude and irresponsible.” He asked if science says it’s so safe, why don’t they use it for irrigation in Japan? He lamented that historically, major powers have used the Pacific for nuclear testing without respect for the islanders’ welfare—who had to suffer from nuclear fallouts.

“The British, French, and Americans are all guilty of these atrocities, and now the Japanese”, noted Koroi. Since China is coming to the Pacific without this baggage, he hopes this will transform into a desire to work with the people of the Pacific for their welfare.

Professor He Baogang, of Deaking University in Australia noted that though the Chinese mindset acknowledges that dealing with climatic change is a human right (health right) issue still needs to be central to their approach to the problem. “This should be laid down as important,” he argues, and suggests that this can be demonstrated by working on areas such as putting green shipping corridors into action.

“China and Pacific Island Countries need to look at an agreement to decarbonize the shipping industry,” he argues. “This conference needs to address how to proceed (in that direction)”.

Pointing out that there is a long history—going back to over 8,000 years—of Chinese ancestry among some Pacific people, pointing out that some Maori traditional tattoos are similar to the Chinese tattoos, Professor Chen Xiaochen, Executive Deputy Director, Center for Asia-Pacific Studies, East China Normal University notes “now we are looking for common ground for Pacific development needs”.

In an informal conversation with IDN, one of the professors from China said that the time has come for the people of China and the Pacific to come to know each other better. “Chinese students hardly know about Pacific cultures and the people,” he told IDN, adding, “I suppose the Pacific people don’t know much of our cultures as well.” He believes closer collaboration with universities in Shandong Provincial would be ideal “because it is a centre of Chinese civilisation”. “Now the Pacific is looking north,” noted Prof Xiaochen, adding, “My flight from Hong Kong was full of Chinese tourists coming South to Fiji.