China’s Pacific Push: Trumping the Language Game?

Amidst a flurry of news and debates on Taiwan’s future in the Pacific region, with two of its last allies worldwide ultimately switching ties from Taipei to Beijing, it was almost all too easy to get distracted. Caught up in discussions about a shifting balance of power and China’s presumed winner-takes-all mentality, the news that a top Chinese university will offer courses in seven Pacific languages did not garner nearly as much attention. And yet, these seemingly negligible courses unveil not only Beijing’s strategic engagement agenda for its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). They simultaneously bare fundamental (linguistic) rifts in Pacific power relations upon which China’s political leadership can increasingly capitalize.

Teaching Pacific Languages in China

If it was not for Beijing’s ambitious yet controversial BRI, reading about a Chinese university offering courses in Pacific languages might as well have been a dispensable side note. And yet, teaching these languages is likely to give Beijing a competitive edge as the country’s leadership is more than ever inclined to anchor its geopolitical and economic agenda among the Pacific Island nations. Approved by the Ministry of Education already in 2017, one of the country’s top education facilities for prospective diplomats, Beijing’s Foreign Studies University (BFSU), is set to teach courses in seven Pacific languages by 2020. Ranging from Samoan and Fijian to Tok Pisin, the courses lean on China’s current allies among the Pacific Islands. Although originally advertised as stand-alone degrees, BFSU students will have to enroll in the English language degree to be eligible to study any of the Pacific languages.

According to a 2019 brief by the Australian National University’s (ANU) Department of Pacific Affairs, BFSU is not the only Chinese university offering Pacific language classes. Whereas Beijing will offer more languages to choose from, Liaocheng University in Shandong province already launched its elective courses in Pacific languages and cultures in May 2019. Under its Research Center for Pacific Island Countries, the university’s Samoan culture and language course has been hailed as an encouraging milestone for the university to continue investing in training its students in this area. However, doubts remain as to whether teaching Pacific languages will be sustainable in the long run and whether enough teachers could be hired.

It is, however, clear that this engagement with the Pacific islands through culture and language speaks to Beijing’s rethinking of its hard cash approach. BFSU official job announcement for language instructors specifically references the need to “strengthen language exchanges and mutual learning” to underpin the country’s global BRI. China’s Pacific charm offensive not only anchors the soft power of language, it also offers a unique window of opportunity to build trust where it was previously eroded.

Adrift: (A) Regional (Linguistic) Climate Change

All the concerns and fears about Beijing’s ever growing influence among the Pacific island nations appeared forgotten when Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison shot himself in the foot at the Pacific Island Forum in Tuvalu. Morrison’s gaffe, in which he vehemently brushed off demands from the Pacific Island Countries (PICs) to end Australia’s reliance on coal in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, earned him little respect among Pacific leaders. Presumably directed towards China’s leadership, Morrison sought to play down Australia’s responsibility to tackle climate change by stating that others “will triple their emissions by 2030”. Whether unaware or deliberately provocative, his remarks have come to represent the apex of a growing divide between Canberra and the majority of Pacific nations. ABC News’s post-gaffe revelation that Beijing plans to foster its relations with the PICs through closer cultural and linguistic awareness was, in retrospect, an ironic twist of fate.

Adding fuel to the fire, Australia’s deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack denounced Pacific islanders as overly dramatic about the consequences of climate change. At a business meeting, McCormack said that all those who feel threatened by climate change could simply “come to Australia and pick [our] fruit”. Even though McCormack later apologized, it did little to appease already angered PICs leaders. Domestic media and the political opposition quickly condemned their insensitive comments. Penny Wong, a leading Labour Party Senator, slammed Morrison for not only damaging Australia’s reputation, but further eroding its strategic foothold in the region. Morrison and McCormack’s ultimately helped lay the groundwork for Beijing to step up as well and stand in solidarity for the PICs. Geng Shuang, China’s Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson, berated Morrison’s remarks, claiming that Australia’s role was nothing short of a “condescending master”. China’s ambassador to Samoa subsequently echoed Beijing’s stance in an op-ed in one of Samoa’s leading newspapers. Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, who appears to have set off the avalanche of criticism in a Guardian interview added insult to injury by proclaiming that the “Chinese don’t insult [the PICs]…They’re good people, definitely better than Morrison, I can tell you that”..

Taking a swipe against Canberra’s troubling climate change language, Beijing appears to have regained a favorable standing among Pacific leaders. Whether its pro-Pacific language will translate into real pro-Pacific action remains to be seen. And yet, asking what Beijing will do, at least for now, misses what is at stake. Australia’s clumsy climate diplomacy, which sought to vilify Chinese intentions yet itself was entirely uncompromising, aggravated Canberra’s position vis-à-vis the PICs for at least some time.   

All in all, even if Chinese universities start small with regards to teaching Pacific languages, the sheer willingness to develop linguistic and cultural competencies should not be underestimated. It is likely that neither the number of graduates of these language programs nor the academic logistics of maintaining these programs will determine how far Beijing’s linguistic soft power will reach. No matter how rhetorically loaded, it might be the simple message of “mutual understanding” which opens doors for Beijing. It might have been a low-key news article on Pacific language courses for Chinese students, but its very existence revealed a relationship in disarray and open to other beneficiaries. For Canberra, this should be more than a lesson learnt. Language matters – theses days even more than Australia’s political leadership is willing to admit. Until then, the language game in the Pacific is likely to continue, with the odds stacked in favor of Beijing.