His comments follow heavy criticism from Australia’s International Development Minister Concetta Fierravanti-Wells this week over China’s activities in the Pacific.
Earlier this week, Fierravanti-Wells, who visited Rarotonga last year, accused the Asian superpower of lending funds to island nations on unfavourable terms and constructing “useless buildings” and “roads to nowhere”.
Brown said her comments on China’s presence in the Pacific were a “little bit unfortunate and probably came out quite blunt in terms of a diplomatic message”.
He said the growing emergence of China and its presence in the Pacific may be a threat for countries like Australia and New Zealand, who he referred as the former colonial masters of Pacific island countries.
“They are probably feeling that their position is being usurped. This (China’s foray in the Pacific), probably indicates they have to do a little bit more if they want to maintain their presence in Pacific island countries,” Brown said.
Fierravanti-Wells earlier this week told The Australian China’s influence in the Pacific was “clearly growing”, but the country’s financial assistance to island nations was resulting in “white elephants”.
“You’ve got the Pacific full of these useless buildings which nobody maintains, which are basically white elephants … I’ve gone to islands and you’ll be driving along on some back road and all of a sudden you see this Chinese road crew building a road to nowhere and you think ‘Hmm, what’s all that about?” she said.
Reacting to the comments about investment in infrastructure by Chinese Overseas Development Assistance (ODA), Brown said they were well aware of the shortcomings of some of the previous projects that had been undertaken in other Pacific countries, including the Cook Islands.
However, he said much of that was a lack of domestic oversight in areas such as involvement in design and project management.
Brown said the current government had fixed those shortcomings, which was reflected in their current projects here involving China and New Zealand.
“This is to make sure that we have a say in how it’s built and designed and that also we have a good quality control during the construction phase,” he said.
For the Cook Islands, Brown said the statement about the buildings being “white elephants” was not accurate.
“For us, these buildings are much needed. Our court house was burned down many years ago and the Justice department operated out of really substandard accommodation. That building that was built at that time was very welcomed and fully utilised.
“The same applies to the police headquarters and the sports arena.
“In terms of white elephant buildings, that (description) may apply to other countries, but certainly not the Cook Islands.”
Brown said the government had also addressed the issue of substandard quality of construction with their Chinese counterparts.
Fierravanti-Wells also told The Australian there was no doubt China was “duchessing” politicians in the Pacific.
The newspaper reported Cook Islands MPs had received free quad bikes as part of a donation of agricultural equipment from the Chinese government in 2015.
“That’s a bit rich coming from the Australian media.
“Australia has made billions and billions of dollars from China over the years selling its minerals,” Brown said.
“To say that Cook Islands is receiving its money or aid in some form from China, again that’s probably something countries like Australia and New Zealand need to look at if China is filling a gap that they no longer provide assistance for.”
Brown said most of the development aid coming from Australia and New Zealand was focused on capacity building issues in areas such as health, education, tourism and others.
He said China’s investment had been more in the area of infrastructure.
“For a small island micro economy, the capital cost of infrastructure remains a big challenge, so any assistance we get from development partners to help us in our infrastructure cost is most welcomed.
“But in saying that, we have changed the way we accept the system now which is to ensure that local companies are involved and to some extent in the last few years, we have been successful with China and also with New Zealand in involving local companies in their projects that they provide development aid for.
“The overseas development aid industry is a big one and it’s been around for many years and a lot of New Zealand and Australian companies made many millions of dollars from it.
“We have been able to influence how it works and we are quite happy with how things are progressing when we engage with our developing partners New Zealand and China.”