Engagement with China divides opinion in South Pacific HE

To some, China’s rapid expansion of its economic footprint across the South Pacific looks like an opportunity for future jobs and engagement with a world power. But others urge caution.

So far, the extent of China’s foray into higher education in the South Pacific is its Confucius Institute at the University of the South Pacific (USP) in Fiji. USP vice-chancellor Pal Ahluwalia told University World News the Confucius Institute was set up to cater to a need for Chinese language skills in the region, particularly in the business and government sectors.

The Confucius Institute (CI-USP) “has conducted a number of in-house training programmes for local business houses and companies,” he said.

“The CI-USP is committed to providing Chinese language and cultural teaching resources and services. It also offers the Confucius Institute Scholarship and recommends excellent students for Chinese government scholarships.”

The USP, established in 1968, is one of only two universities in the world that is run as an intergovernmental organisation. The university is jointly owned by the governments of 12 member countries: the Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Niue, Solomon Islands, Tokelau, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, and Samoa.

Although the university has campuses in all 12 Pacific Island countries, its main campus is in Suva, the capital of Fiji.

4,000 students have learned Chinese

The CI-USP, a joint venture between USP and Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, was set up in 2012, with more than 4,000 students completing Chinese language courses since its inception. CI-USP currently offers credit courses that could count towards a degree majoring in other areas.

In March 2014, due to high demand for Chinese language competence for the tourism hub in the western part of Fiji, CI-USP opened a Teaching Point at USP’s Lautoka Campus. The following year, a Confucius Classroom was established at the Emalus Campus in Vanuatu and another on the Cook Islands Campus.

Sudesh Mishra, the head of USP’s School of Pacific Arts, Communication and Education, under whose wing CI-USP is located, said USP’s School of Tourism requested basic Mandarin communication courses.

“Fiji is trying to attract Chinese tourists to visit us and the tourism sector needs people who can actually speak Mandarin so that they can communicate with their guests … Most business communication training is done with our tourism students,” said Mishra. “The teachers come from China, sent by our sister institution in Beijing.”

Warning of ‘indoctrination’

But Fiji’s former prime minister Mahendra Chaudhry believes organisations like the Confucius Institutes are vehicles for a form of “indoctrination” to help China get an economic foothold in the South Pacific.

In this, he echoes the United States’ and its allies’ concerns about China’s growing activities in the Pacific and increasing influence on Pacific Island states through the bolstering of economic ties with countries like Solomon Islands, Fiji and Tonga.

“We need to guard against that. They come with the intention of dominating,” he warned in an interview with University World News in Suva.

“At a time, there was a belief internationally that if people want to do business with China you need to learn Chinese. But they have learned English now, because English has established itself as the international language of commerce.”

However, USP’s Mishra disagreed, arguing that with China, the world’s second-biggest economic power, “it would be stupid of our people not to engage with them”, and suggested it was better to have an open collaboration.

If China did not offer to set up a Confucius Institute in Fiji, “then we should be deeply suspicious [because] they may have something to hide”, he suggested.

“The moment you try to create a sense of paranoia that China’s global emergence is threatening you, then the problem might be with you, not China,” he argued.

Student views

Some students are happy to study the language and several believe it will help their career prospects. Fiji, along with other Pacific Island states, is included in China’s infrastructure and trade project, the Belt and Road Initiative, with major construction projects under way before the coronavirus pandemic.

The Chinese Chamber of Commerce in Fiji has said there are currently around 30 Chinese companies in the island nation, most of them construction firms.

Yet, a few students at USP, while interested in learning Mandarin, also admitted to having reservations.

Ifran, a civil engineering student, said that, with Chinese construction companies increasing their activities in Fiji, it would be valuable for him to learn Mandarin, but shared some of Chaudhry’s concerns.

“I’m not saying that, if we learn Chinese, we are going to lose our freedom, [but] if a group of people believe in the same ideology, that group could become a ‘radical’ group,” radicalised to believe in China’s social and political norms, he said.

President of the local USP Students’ Association, Robert Koron, from Vanuatu, said China was rapidly expanding economic activities in his country and schools have introduced Mandarin teaching there. He fears bringing in a foreign language could dilute the traditional culture.

“Pacific Islanders previously did not think of money. We shared what we had. Now they bring money and make people more money minded,” he told University World News. “The Chinese do help us [in development] but we need to understand their intentions. We need to know what we want out of it.”

Fascination with China

Others were less concerned about such issues. Ilimeleki Tiko, a Fijian studying for a degree in politics, said he always had a fascination with Mandarin and the Chinese culture “so, when I heard that the Chinese language course was offered at USP, I had no second thoughts about it and immediately signed up.

“There is this broad misconception that people have about the Mandarin language being complex or cumbersome [but] I find it … very interesting. When learning about other languages, you start to develop a deep sense of awareness and appreciation for other people’s cultures and practices,” he said.

A fan of Chinese movies, Koini Vere, a Fijian student studying land management and geography, chose to take a Mandarin course as part of her degree because she wanted to watch Chinese movies without having to read sub-titles.

“I chose to study Mandarin language [because] it will help me know a lot more about their culture and their language. I also believe that it will be helpful in my future career,” she said.

“China is accelerating in its economy and learning Mandarin helps in the understanding of its business culture,” she added.

Adi Laisa Ooro, a third-year student majoring in politics and sociology, took two courses in language skills at USP-CI and is now learning Chinese business communication. She said she was attracted to learning Chinese because she has noted an increasing demand for Chinese translators as Chinese business activities in Fiji increase.

Beyond language learning

USP’s deputy vice-chancellor (education) Jito Vanualailai said he would like to see China expanding its investments at USP beyond language teaching, especially in USP’s work in relation to the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Vanualailai said China was a world leader in renewable energy, particularly in the building of solar panels. “That would be a great area in which to work with China, because that is what we want to promote in the region,” Vanualailai told University World News.

Another area would be developing hybrid sailing vessels for inter-island travel in the Pacific. “It is one area where we need big help because transport between islands is very expensive now [with its dependency on fossil fuels],” he said, pointing to a major project with Norway on the issue.

“So far, China has not got involved in our SDG work,” said Vanualailai.