China is pushing for more university students to study Pacific Island languages in a bid to bolster the appeal of its trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative across the region.
Seven Pacific Island languages will soon be available for study in Bachelors-level programs at the Beijing Foreign Studies University (BFSU) including Tok Pisin, one of Papua New Guinea’s official languages, as well as Samoan, Tongan, and Fijian.
The move comes as China continues to try and grow its diplomatic influence in the region, amid renewed efforts from Australia to “step up” its own engagement in the Pacific.
Languages from all eight of China’s diplomatic partners in the Pacific will be represented in the courses, which have been developed with the explicit goal of improving China’s foreign ties.
“To serve the Chinese Government’s significant strategies … [BFSU] willingly accepts the strategic task of language education,” a job advertisement for Pacific Island language teachers said.
“[BFSU] plans to cover languages of all the countries that have diplomatic relations with China by 2020.”
Scholarships will be also be offered to Pacific students as part of the language exchange.
Australia has almost no comparable language programs at its universities — the Australian National University is the only institution with a Pacific language course, specifically in Tok Pisin, which is offered online.
Anna Powles, a senior lecturer in Security Studies at New Zealand’s Massey University, told the ABC’s Pacific Beat program the lack of Pacific Island language skills among Australian diplomatic staff has not gone unnoticed.
“Language has been a key criticism of Australia, certainly in terms of the language skills of those deployed to the region,” she said.
“Language as a soft power tool is critical because as we know in the Pacific, relationships and trust are very much the currency in the region.
“You can only really build true, genuine relationships through shared language, shared culture and understanding.”
Politics behind language push
In addition to the seven Pacific Island languages, Beijing’s Foreign Studies University will also offer dozens of other minority languages like East Timor’s Tetum and the Dhivehi language spoken in the Maldives.
Each of the languages are from countries that have signed on to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), an ambitious infrastructure and development project that aims to connect 126 countries through land and sea.
The project is Chinese President Xi Jinping’s signature foreign policy, and experts say it aims to reshape global trade flows to place China at its centre.
“The Chinese Government will not spare any effort in promoting [the BRI] globally, including in the Pacific,” Denghua Zhang, a research fellow at the Australian National University’s Department of Pacific Affairs, told the ABC.
“The main purpose of this kind of teaching program is to support Chinese foreign policy and especially to support the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative.”
Dr Zhang worked alongside Setope So’oa’emalelagi, a Samoan language teacher at Liaocheng University in China’s Shandong province, to research the impacts of Pacific language teaching on Chinese foreign policy.
Mr So’oa’emalelagi said the push for more university-level Pacific Islands language courses was significant, especially since the Beijing Foreign Studies University was a school of choice for Chinese diplomats.
However, attracting enrolments could prove to be a headache — some of the languages, like Cook Islands Maori and Niuean, have fewer than 15,000 native speakers, and that fact has been a point of controversy for prospective students.
“Fiji has a population of less than 1 million, so there is little use in studying Fijian,” one critic wrote on the online forum Zhihu.
“Such a major cannot guarantee employment.”
Should Australia be worried?
Dr Powles from Massey University said China’s push ought to be a concern for both Australia and New Zealand, where opportunities for learning Pacific Island languages are limited.
But she said irrespective of China’s plans, both countries should first be worried about the fact they have not already implemented similar programs.
“What Australia and New Zealand do in the region, as a rule, shouldn’t be a reaction to what China is doing,” she said.
“if the Australian Government and the Australian Prime Minister are serious about the relationship of family — of vuvale — if they’re serious about a ‘step up’ in the region, then things like language and other critical elements of what it means to be part of a region need to also be elevated.
“Not because China’s doing it, but because it’s the only thing to do if you’re serious about deepening your relationship with your neighbours.”
For Mr So’oa’emalelagi, who has been teaching his course at Liaocheng University since March, the cultural value of the language classes trumps the geopolitical significance.
“Point one per cent of people in China actually understand or know where Samoa is, let alone other islands,” he said.
“So it’s a great way for us to promote our culture and who we are through the language.”