PhD student investigates
soft power in the Pacific

With the help of a Foundation postgraduate research grant, Ashalyna Noa travelled to Samoa and China to conduct fieldwork for her PhD, which examines New Zealand and China’s foreign aid and soft power in the Pacific.
woman with flower behind ear in front of beach scene

Ashalyna: "Navigating the complexities of my own cultural identity has played a significant part in shaping my interest in international relations."

Navigating the complexities of my own cultural identity has played a significant part in shaping my interest in international relations. On my maternal side, my grandmother is Samoan, German and American, and my grandfather is Samoan Chinese. On my paternal side, my grandfather was born and raised in Papua New Guinea but is Samoan Tongan,and my grandmother is Samoan English.

I have always been interested in understanding the relationships between these different countries, their cultures and peoples. Through my studies, I have been able to explore some of these connections.

My master’s research analysed the impact of the Chinese in Samoa by examining China’s contribution of ‘human capital’ through early Chinese entrepreneurship and the indentured labour scheme.

This research helped me piece together part of my family history, as my great grandfather was one of the first 12 Chinese men to settle in Samoa. He set up a number of businesses, became one of the first owners of race horses in Samoa and was a foundation member of Samoa’s Chinese Association.

I wanted to build on what I had learnt from my master's research, with a focus on New Zealand’s connections in the Pacific. My PhD examines New Zealand and China’s foreign aid and soft power in the Pacific. It explores the interests and approaches of the donors in the region, the interests and responses of the recipient countries, and impact of foreign aid on the Pacific.

With the support of an Asia New Zealand Foundation postgraduate research grant, I was able to travel to Samoa between August and September 2017 to conduct field work. During this time, I interviewed a number of participants, including current and former Government officials and public servants, and also visited a number of sites funded by Chinese aid.

Prior to heading to Samoa, I was riding a rollercoaster of excitement and apprehension. It was such a privilege to be there for my studies.

Being born and raised in New Zealand, like many New Zealand-born Samoans can relate to, I constantly had that conflict of not being seen as a New Zealander in New Zealand. And I’d then instantly standing out as New Zealand born when I set foot in Samoa. I was apprehensive about being an insider-outsider and wondered how this would influence my research. 

Each of my interviewees provided me with great insight on different aspects of New Zealand and China’s support in Samoa – from Samoa's historical connections with New Zealand and China and how they have evolved, to perspectives on current infrastructure projects, local building company perspectives and negotiations and interactions at local, regional and international levels. I enthusiastically soaked up the wealth of expertise and knowledge made available to me.

Hearing and reading the reactions of locals about China’s influence in Samoa was interesting. It often did not reflect the perspectives of those in positions of authority that I had been interviewing.

Building from low angle

The Tui Atua Tamasese Efi government building in Apia was funded through a US$52 million soft-term loan facility from China.

During my time there, Samoa hosted the 48th Pacific Islands Forum Leaders Meeting. The theme of the Forum was ‘The Blue Pacific’, which signified a strengths-based concept of ownership and collaboration for the region.

There was a real buzz in town, with high profile delegates, observers and partners present. Although these events impacted on the availability of a number of my potential participants, the experiences on the ground and anecdotal feedback from people present at the Forum was additional material I had not factored in prior to travelling to Samoa.

I was also able to travel to China for the first time and spent some time in Beijing and Shanghai. I was initially overwhelmed by the size of the cities and population. In Beijing, I spent a day with a senior Pacific diplomat and heard about their experiences in China.

My experiences in Samoa and China influenced my research in ways that text books and interviews alone could not have. In a research capacity, these experiences enabled me to weave in more cultural elements to my methodology and enabled me to adapt to the culture of the different environments.

It was the cultural insights and alternative perspectives that were most invaluable and have provided me a basis for understanding the different contexts at play in my research.