China can provide new definitions of development aid

By Song Wei Source:Global Times Published: 2018/1/21 23:33:39

Illustration: Peter C. Espina/GT

Earlier this month, Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, Australia's minister for international development and the Pacific, accused China of making the Pacific full of "useless buildings." Her claim caused an uproar, but her view is not new.

Several years ago, when China provided Tonga and other South Pacific island countries with Modern Ark 60 airliners and Y12 utility aircraft, Australia and New Zealand raised questions about the airworthiness of these planes.

Island countries in the Pacific have been treated collectively as a sphere of influence by Australia, which has set up barriers to block other development resources from outside the region. Criticizing the infrastructure projects built by China reflects the geopolitical intentions and tactics of Australia.

Several factors suggest that Wells' logic is absurd.

The gap in infrastructure financing is acknowledged globally. According to estimates by the UN Conference on Trade and Development, there is a financing gap of at least $2.5 trillion.

Island countries in the Pacific face raw material shortages. Hardware and building materials must be imported over vast distances. Thus, traditional donors and private companies don't want to undertake infrastructure construction since the cost is too steep. China indeed is the only choice for these countries. Earlier, Chinese telecoms company Huawei planned to build a 4,000-kilometer submarine optical cable from Sydney to the Solomon Islands, which was rejected by Australia. But because of international pressure, Australia had to fund the project alone.

Who decides if aid is effective? The design, construction and evaluation of assistance projects should prioritize local needs. That is the consensus of the Development Assistant Committee of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. The ownership principle has been written in the Declaration of Paris and accepted by traditional donors. China and the recipients engaged in active communication.

The recipients were the ones who proposed the projects. Australia criticized the effectiveness of development assistance projects funded by China, which shows its chauvinistic thinking.

Do small Pacific island countries have a right to embrace modernization? Australia has viewed them as its backyard. They do not have a strong will to develop since the islands are scattered and the populations are sparse.

Take Micronesia as an example: its land area is 705 square kilometers, with 607 islands and a population of 105,600. Micronesia enjoys a warm climate and financial stability, which allows it to maintain its pristine idyllic scenery. It has become a famous resort for tourists from developed countries.

But how should we define development? Leaving Micronesia alone on the vast Pacific Ocean, isolated from modern civilization, like a Garden of Eden? Or taking it into the modern world, sharing the developmental benefits of globalization through tangible industry and trade? This is the fundamental bifurcation between the Chinese foreign assistance concept and traditional utilitarianism.

The accusations from Australia show that there will be conflicts between building a "community of common destiny" and maintaining geopolitical spheres of influence. China's foreign assistance efforts need great strategic wisdom.

The stratification of global governance should be removed. Until now, it has been the big powers setting the global governance regimes. But the US leaving the UN Climate Change Conference hanging exposed weaknesses in global governance. Though the rise of Third World countries has been discussed for nearly half a century, small countries' appeals still cannot be answered. Maybe only a power that rises beyond the Western system can provide solutions.

Depoliticization of development assistance is needed. Development is a neutral topic, and it should not be an instrument to realize the national interests of big powers.

Assistance plans should be localized. Both parties should discuss and design assistance projects together, starting with the basic infrastructure, constructing the auxiliary facilities, providing more training to local labor, operating and maintaining the infrastructure project. Projects should stick to the principle of being raised, agreed and led by recipient countries. More resources need to be leveraged to expand the funds for development, and  China's development assistance concept should be kept in mind during interactions with traditional donors.

The author is an associate researcher with the Chinese Academy of International Trade and Economic Cooperation.


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