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China sends chills through South Pacific politics

Suspicion over New Zealand MP stokes fears of widespread meddling

SYDNEY -- Controversy swirling around a China-born member of New Zealand's parliament is raising larger questions about Beijing's drive to become a dominant force in the South Pacific.

Winston Peters, New Zealand's deputy prime minister, on Dec. 20 called for an investigation of Jian Yang, a National Party MP who previously spent 10 years working for Chinese military intelligence. Yang stands accused of lobbying ministers to reconsider a block on security clearance for a defense force applicant -- an allegation he denies. Peters also blasted the opposition National Party which Yang belongs to, for relying on foreign donations.

Back in September, Anne-Marie Brady, a professor at New Zealand's University of Canterbury, spoke at a conference in Washington about how her country has become a new target of Chinese political influence. She has warned that China is using ethnic-Chinese residents to further its agenda, and that the pressure has reached a "critical level." 

Brady's views created an international stir, as China's superpower ascent continues apace and other countries grow more suspicious of its actions and intentions. "The response to my paper has been really huge, globally," Brady said.

Yang is one of about 60 million overseas Chinese citizens and ethnic Chinese worldwide. Since China launched economic reforms in 1978, its citizens have emigrated in large numbers to places like Canada, Australia and Europe, often entering as students or investors. These people should not be painted with a broad brush, but some remain supportive of the Communist Party and China's government. Australian universities, for example, have taken heat from Chinese students over perceived insults against the motherland, such as a map that fails to conform with China's claims. 

The allegations against Yang sent shock waves far beyond New Zealand's borders. There is concern that classified information shared under the Five Eyes intelligence alliance -- which also includes the U.S., U.K., Canada and Australia -- may have leaked to China. 

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio has stressed the need to be vigilant of Chinese efforts to interfere in other countries' politics.

Room for two

New Zealand is a textbook example of China's approach to relationship-building. 

A free-trade agreement has allowed New Zealand to export huge volumes of dairy products, while China is the largest foreign investor in the country's dairy industry. New Zealand was the first to sign a memorandum of cooperation on China's Belt and Road Initiative. 

China sees New Zealand as a gateway to greater influence over the South Pacific. For years, Chinese President Xi Jinping's mantra has been that the "vast Pacific Ocean has enough space for the two large countries of China and the U.S." His vision, it seems, is to divvy up the ocean with the world's other superpower.

New Zealand may be a small country, but it is a critical piece of the puzzle for China, as it is a vital security and development caretaker for smaller islands. The Cook Islands, Niue and Tokelau are either self-governing dominions or associated states of New Zealand. "China has an interest in the South Pacific and will want the NZ government's acquiescence in China's policies and agenda in the South Pacific," Brady said.

This has major implications for Taiwan, as well. Of the 20 countries that maintain formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan, six are in the Pacific. Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen visited the Solomon Islands, Marshall Islands and Tuvalu in late October and early November to express her appreciation for the islands' support. 

While six Pacific island states take Taiwan's side, eight stand with China. Over the years, China has been dangling economic aid to the pro-Taiwan islands to persuade them to switch allegiances.

And while Australia and Japan extend free aid to the islands, China loans them money with interest, according to the Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank. Countries with small budgets such as Samoa, Vanuatu and Tonga face tightening fiscal situations due to the repayment burden -- potentially giving China even more leverage.

China is already the lead donor to Fiji and is poised to overtake Australia's position in Samoa and Tonga as well, Lowy research shows. In recent years, China has also made aggressive investments into Papua New Guinea's gold mines and industrial zones.

One would expect Australia, hitherto the largest power in the South Pacific, to push back against China's growing clout. But Australia has its own issues with Chinese influence.

From Australia to Antarctica

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on Dec. 5 announced that the country will toughen penalties on foreign spies, saying the threat of political intervention by foreign intelligence agencies is more serious than ever. The move was prompted by suspicious ties between an opposition lawmaker and China.

Australian Labor Party lawmaker Sam Dastyari made comments favoring China's positions in South China Sea territorial disputes, after receiving money from a Chinese property developer, local media reported. He also allegedly warned the businessman that U.S. and Australian intelligence agencies might be tapping his cellphone.

Dastyari resigned from parliament in December.

China has a long-term strategic agenda in Antarctica that will require the cooperation of established Antarctic states such as New Zealand

Anne-Marie Brady, professor at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand

Chinese companies donated about $4.2 million to major Australian political parties between 2013 and 2015, making China the largest foreign donor, according to local reports. An increasingly concerned Australian government will start amending laws in order to prohibit political donations by foreign companies.

Brady argues that China's ambitions do not stop at the South Pacific -- it wants to control Antarctica, too. New Zealand is one of seven countries claiming territorial rights around the Ross Sea, near the frozen continent. The region is known for abundant resources and holds appeal for adventurous tourists as well. 

"China has a long-term strategic agenda in Antarctica that will require the cooperation of established Antarctic states such as New Zealand," Brady said.

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