China's ambitions to be a superpower have been much spoken of, but little evidenced beyond increasing trade and involvement in multinational forums such as the United Nations. South Pacific islanders know better. For more than a decade, the mainland has been quietly moving into the region as an investor and aid donor. At first, it was winning away the diplomatic recognition Taiwan had received from some of the 14 island nations. But in the latter half of the 1990s, growing trade was joined by aid and China's activities in the region known as Oceania are now rivalled only by Japan. The leaders of the mostly cash-strapped islands have warmly welcomed the new sports stadiums, office buildings and airports provided free with mainland money. In return, they have agreed to diplomatic ties with Beijing and vote with it in support of issues at the UN and other organisations. In the past two years, the heads of government of the Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Kiribati, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu have made official visits to the capital. The co-author of a recently published academic report on China's expanding role in the Pacific, Benjamin Reilly, said last week it was now accepted routine that the first official overseas trip by a new Oceania leader should be to China, rather than to the United States, Australia or New Zealand. Such a decision has not been difficult, with the latter nations downgrading their involvement with the region. For the US, the end of the cold war meant the need to counter the threat of Soviet warships no longer existed. During the 1980s and 1990s, Australia and New Zealand turned to Southeast Asia for investment. Dr Reilly, with the Asia-Pacific School of Economics and Government at Australian National University in Canberra, believed the mainland's motive was mostly to gain strategic influence. This had taken over from its traditional interest in the Pacific being focused on the tussle with Taiwan for diplomatic recognition at the UN. Similar activity had been taking place in Africa and the Caribbean, targeting small, impoverished states. 'As the US has been downgrading its interests, China has stepped up its,' he said. 'It's been opening embassies, providing lots of highly visible, prestige projects, opening new office buildings and airports.' The list is impressive and includes the headquarters of Papua New Guinea's Foreign Ministry, government offices in Samoa, a sporting complex in Fiji and extending the airport in Kiribati. A satellite receiving station has also been built on Kiribati, ostensibly for China's burgeoning space programme, but some American officials have suspicions the mainland is using it to spy on installations of the US missile defence system. Dr Reilly said the approach to providing aid was much different from that of traditional donors such as Australia and New Zealand, whose efforts were dependent on good governance and similar riders. 'A lot of the Pacific countries do not like dealing with these kinds of pressures to perform in a particular way,' he said. 'The money from China is no-strings-attached in one sense, but it is not giving it away either. It's providing assistance to these countries as part of its strategy to become, in the long term, the major power in the Pacific.' For a time in the 1990s Taiwan appeared to have that ambition. Pushing for a permanent seat at the UN, it wooed Oceania with millions of dollars in exchange for their diplomatic support. The mainland has since whittled that away, Nauru last year becoming the latest nation to switch allegiances. Four of the poorest and weakest states - the Marshall Islands, Palau, the Solomon Islands and Tuvalu - now back the island. A research fellow with the China Institute of Contemporary International Studies in Beijing, Zhai Kun, believed the Taiwan issue remained the mainland's chief reason for engagement with South Pacific nations. Significant, but of less importance, were strategic involvement and protecting the interests of the tens of thousands of Chinese immigrants to the region. Whether the mainland or Taiwan won the competition for recognition was of little concern to the island states, Dr Zhai said. 'They need the money, not the political prestige,' he said. 'The side which brings the most money will forge the closer relations.' Such views are not stated aloud by Oceania's governments, which prefer to talk of 'warming friendship and co-operation'. That is how China's activities are described by the Fijian prime minister's permanent secretary, Jioji Kotobatavu. 'We welcome the growing presence of China in the Pacific region and its increased participation in supporting economic and social development,' he said. 'China is also a very important market to us for exports and tourism.' In global terms the amount of trade is small, but the amounts of aid being handed over are substantial. The recent South Pacific Games held in the Fijian capital, Suva, took place in a US$13.8 million sporting complex funded and built by China. A similar complex will be built in Samoa for the next games, while Vanuatu's parliament building was constructed with mainland funding. 'The Pacific islands region is now no longer confined to Australia, New Zealand, France and the US in terms of development support,' Mr Kotobatavu said. 'China and Japan are increasingly becoming major players for the good of the region.' He saw the only negative being that the increasing investment was also attracting underworld criminal activity from the mainland, but Fiji was implementing new immigration controls to counter the threat. The former colonial and strategic powers in the region are publicly unfazed by the shift. Experts believe Australia's recent military intervention in the Solomon Islands to disarm rebels fighting the government was to ensure its own security from extremists in the region. Neither was the US overly concerned, said Eric Shibuya, an Oceania expert at the Asia Pacific Centre for Security Studies in Honolulu. 'China's increased stature in any region concerns the US,' Dr Shibuya said. 'But right now, its rising strategic profile in Oceania is probably a fairly low priority for Washington.' Matters of strategy are not part of the equation for South Pacific islanders. For them, the aid, trade, tourism and investment from the mainland are a windfall amid economic uncertainty.