By Stephen Wright and Zhuang Jing
George, who said he arrived on this lush island in Micronesia six months ago, lives with two other Chinese men and fierce guard dogs at an isolated site in the jungle that was used to make asphalt for a Chinese-funded road upgrade.
He wouldn’t give his complete name when reporters from BenarNews and affiliate news organization Radio Free Asia visited the huddle of grimy prefab buildings.
He imitated gripping a steering wheel when he said his job was truck driver for the road project that was carried out by China Railway 14th Bureau Group – part of state-owned China Railway Construction Corp.
It’s unlikely he’s had much driving to do.
The road paving work on the island of Pohnpei was completed in the second half of 2021, and plants were growing from the construction vehicles parked at the site.
George rattled off what seemed to be a well-rehearsed statement about contributing to the development of Micronesia, a North Pacific nation with close ties to the United States, before bombarding a BenarNews reporter with increasingly indignant questions.
An expression of disbelief rippled over his youthful face when “You like China? You like USA?” elicited a noncommittal response.
Another Chinese man, purportedly George’s boss at China Railway 14th Bureau Group, said they were at the jungle camp for the two-year warranty period for the eight-kilometer (five-mile) road project. He answered questions about the project, on the condition he wasn’t named.
The recently paved road is one of the many Chinese projects on Pohnpei and other islands in Micronesia, a nation of some 100,000 people located between the Philippines and Hawaii that has decades-long ties with the United States.
From swivel chairs donated to the country’s congress to a college gymnasium as well as state government buildings and pest control for coconut trees, China’s development assistance has, over at least two decades, made its way into every corner of the country.
‘We need to be very, very astute and careful’
Micronesia and its neighbors Palau and the Marshall Islands comprise hundreds of islands spread over a vast expanse of ocean in the northwest Pacific. They have among the world’s largest exclusive economic zones and militarily strategic seas near East Asia, a region of potential flashpoints in China-U.S. competition.
All three delegate their defense to the United States and over the next two decades could receive more than $7 billion of financial and economic assistance from Washington under so-called compacts of free association, subject to Congressional approval. Tens of thousands of Micronesian citizens live in Guam, Hawaii and other parts of the U.S., and many serve in its military.
Of the three nations, only Micronesia recognizes China. Palau and Marshall Islands have diplomatic relations with Taiwan.
“Anyone can assume China will be doing their best to achieve more influence in the Pacific region. There’s no question about that,” said David Panuelo, Micronesia’s president from 2019 until earlier this year.
Even China critics such as Panuelo say economic and technical assistance from the world’s second-largest economy is welcome. But he also warns against allowing the relationship with the authoritarian Communist Party-ruled state to include security.
Before his term ended earlier this year, Panuelo drew international attention to what he said was Beijing’s aggressive campaign to undermine his government and its alliance with the U.S. using tactics that included intimidation and bribes.
He advocated switching diplomatic recognition to Taiwan and rejected China’s choice of ambassador, Wu Wei, citing his security background.
A common development vision encompassing security that China failed to persuade Pacific island nations to sign in 2022 was an indication of its ambitions in the Pacific, according to Panuelo.
“Pacific island nations, the way we deal with foreign nations, we need to be very, very astute and careful about what we accept about the future of our countries,” he said.
One of the early acts of the administration of Wesley Simina, the successor to Panuelo, was to accept Wu’s appointment as ambassador.
Micronesia’s foreign ministry received interview requests from BenarNews and Radio Free Asia, but did not agree to one. An adviser to Simina did not respond to a request for an interview.
China’s embassy did not respond to emailed questions about development projects in Micronesia.
A Pohnpei state senator, who did not want to be named, said he was unhappy with the lack of transparency of Chinese projects in the state and suspicious of some activities, but his questions had gone unanswered.
He said men from China Railway Construction Corp. had recently visited the state capital and asked to stay longer at their jungle camp while they wait for a new project in Micronesia’s Yap state.
No one in Pohnpei’s main town, Kolonia, answered the door at a large building widely understood to be used by China’s diplomats. The rented building is not China’s embassy and had no official markings, but usually had several vehicles with diplomatic plates parked on its grounds.
China’s longest running aid project in Pohnpei, a pilot farm started in 1998, also was off limits to reporters.
“Your request is noted and declined,” said Xiongping Liu, a contact person for the farm, in response to a request to visit.
Some of the farm’s produce has been used to supply food for Chinese research ships, according to the farm’s own informational materials reviewed by BenarNews.
“The produce has been transferred to [Pohnpei state government] Agriculture Division for sale which has met part of the demand of the local market and also provided fresh vegetable supplies for Chinese scientific research ships,” the materials said.
In the region and elsewhere, China’s research fleet has caused concern for its unexplained visits to countries’ exclusive economic zones.
Micronesia’s neighbor Palau has reported five such incidents since 2018, the latest in August. In May, a Chinese research vessel loitered over Palau’s fiber-optic cable, according to the island nation’s government.
To better police its waters, Palau signed an agreement with Washington last month that will allow the U.S. coast guard to board ships without a Palauan officer present.
“It’s very scary,” said the same Pohnpei state senator who asked not to be named, about what he believes is the Chinese Embassy’s influence with a minority of members of the state legislature.
He said he has fears for democracy in Micronesia but did not want to be named because criticism of China’s aid projects could be used against him during campaigning for elections.
A large part of the Chinese aid work in Micronesia predates the Belt and Road Initiative – China’s sprawling, decade-old plan to dot the globe with ports, roads, railways and other infrastructure that could further its trade, economic and security interests.
Pacific island nations were a late addition to the Belt and Road vision, analysts said, but the initiative is now the principal way in which Beijing organizes its relations with states in the region.
“What it does provide Pacific states is a way to finance infrastructure,” said Henryk Szadziewski, a University of Hawaii researcher.
“There is a vast shortfall and a great need for upgrading infrastructure across the Pacific. It did fit that missing piece of the jigsaw for a lot of Pacific states.”
China’s state media, meanwhile, has sought to enlist Pacific islands media in its Belt and Road News Network, which was established to publish positive stories about Chinese infrastructure projects.
People’s Daily’s chief correspondent for Australia, Xiaowei Chen, has been involved in that effort in coordination with Chinese diplomats, information reviewed by BenarNews shows.
Chinese state companies also frequently secure infrastructure contracts in the region that are funded by lenders such as the Asian Development Bank and World Bank, said researcher Peter Connolly, potentially giving the impression these projects also are China’s.
China’s activity in Micronesia appears particularly extensive but it’s not without its limitations, a pattern repeated throughout the Pacific.
For Papua New Guinea, the most populous Pacific island nation, there’s only been slow progress after Chinese President Xi Jinping’s 2018 promise to turbocharge road building with billions of dollars.
In Suva, a Chinese real-estate company’s project to build Fiji’s tallest building, WG Friendship Plaza, has had construction halted because of safety and legal controversies and remains unfinished after nearly a decade.
In Pohnpei, the road, which the project manager said employed about 50 local workers and should last 15 to 20 years, has already shrunk in places to narrower than a single lane by the encroaching jungle.
Pohnpei’s state government building, completed by China in 2010 and easily the largest building in charmingly ramshackle Kolonia, has become known for its use of materials unsuited to the climate and a long broken-down elevator.
Next to China’s embassy on a mountain that’s also home to the federal capital, Palikir, abandoned weather-beaten hulks of buildings are what remain of an unsuccessful tourism venture between Chinese interests and a local municipality.
However, in the Solomon Islands, which switched its diplomatic recognition to Beijing from Taiwan in 2019, relations with China have entered a golden age.
Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare has used the China-U.S. rivalry to secure more development for his country, which like other Pacific island nations grapples with lack of jobs, infrastructure and healthcare.
China has bankrolled more than half the cost for the Solomon Islands capital Honiara to host the 24-nation Pacific Games in November by building the main stadium and other facilities. The event also has brought activity from other donor nations to build sports facilities and upgrade the international airport and roads.
“Solomon Islands has benefited so much from the People’s Republic of China. It just started its partnership with Solomon Islands only three years now, but I can see a lot of developments are happening, especially in Honiara,” said Margret Tusia, a resident of the capital.
“What I really want to see is development going down to our provincial governments as well, because I believe that is where real development should be,” she said.
Micronesia and Palau’s agreement earlier this year to increased financial assistance from the United States under their compact of free association doesn’t mean China’s influence campaign is failing, said John T. Hennessey-Niland, U.S. ambassador to Palau from 2020 to late 2022.
“I don’t think it’s a zero-sum game,” he said. “There’s room for cooperation. Obviously there’s also competition, and unfortunately in places like the South China Sea and the Pacific, there’s potential for confrontation.”
Part of the U.S. response to rivalry with China has been to boost its number of embassies in the region and revamp its aid efforts. It has opened embassies in the Solomon Islands and Tonga this year and also plans a mission in Vanuatu.
“We are stepping up in the face of competition and real challenges from the PRC. But the U.S. has to be very careful about over-promising and under delivering,” said Hennessey-Niland.
“There’s only a couple of people actually in these new embassies, that, simply to be honest, is not enough.”
BenarNews and Radio Free Asia collaborated on this special report.