The China-Pacific Island Countries Common Development Initiative: Content & Analysis

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By Chris Devonshire-Ellis 

China has released a draft of a document entitled “The China-Pacific Island Countries Common Development” which has raised a storm of protest in the West, with criticisms based mainly upon proposed security activity. China’s Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, is visiting seven of the mainly small island nations on a diplomatic trip starting May 30, including the Solomon Islands, Kiribati, Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea, in addition to Timor-Leste.

Three countries Prime Ministers will be holding virtual meetings with Wang, being the Cook Islands, Niue, and the Federated States of Micronesia. Collective meetings are being held with all under the umbrella of the second China-Pacific Island Countries Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, due to be held in Fiji.

China has laid out its position is a draft document, reproduced below, with my comments on each point underneath.

Preface

China and Pacific Island Countries (PICs) enjoy long-lasting friendly exchanges. Since the establishment of diplomatic ties in the 1970s, China and PICs have continued to expand exchanges and cooperation in more than 20 areas, including trade, investment, ocean affairs, environmental protection, disaster prevention and mitigation, poverty alleviation, health care, education, tourism, culture, sports and at the sub-national level. For PICs, China has provided economic and technical assistance without any political strings attached, implemented more than 100 aid projects, delivered more than 200 batches of in-kind assistance, and trained about 10,000 talents in various fields. China has dispatched 600 medical staff to PICs, benefiting more than 260,000 local residents. Since the start of COVID-19, China has provided PICs with nearly 600,000 doses of vaccines and more than 100 tons of anti-epidemic supplies. In addition, China and PICs have forged 22 pairs of sister provinces/states and cities.

In 2014 and 2018, President Xi Jinping made two visits to the South Pacific region and held meetings with leaders of PICs having diplomatic ties with China, which opened a new chapter in the history of China-PIC relations. From late May to early June 2022, State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi will be invited to visit South Pacific Island Countries and chair the second China-Pacific Island Countries Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, which further demonstrates China’s commitment to enhancing mutual trust, building consensus, expanding cooperation and deepening friendship with PICs.

As things stand, China-PIC relations have entered a new stage of rapid growth. This Fact Sheet helps review the history of friendly exchanges and achievements of practical cooperation between the two sides, so as to usher in an even brighter future of China-PIC relations.

Comment

Much of the criticism seems to be based on frustration that China has taken an initiative that regional powers such as Australia and New Zealand have failed to do on a collective basis. In recognising the PIC as a total body, China has given the group a combined identity and decision-making capability not previously organized through traditional channels. That provides the PIC with enhanced political strength and purpose – many have very similar needs that until now have only been addressed on bilateral basis. This appears to have taken London, (which has a vested interest via the Commonwealth) Canberra and Wellington by surprise. Taken together, the ten PIC (Cook Islands, Solomon Islands, Kiribati, Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu, Niue and Micronesia, together with Timor Leste) have a surface area similar to that of Austria and a collective coastline larger than Antarctica. Adding in Papua New Guinea, a significant territory in its own right, provides the grouping with a collective landmass similar to that of France, and with a coastline larger than that of the United States. It appears to have been China who has recognized the potential ahead of the traditional Western partners.       

Pacific Island Countries By Size & Coastline

Name Area (km2) Coastline (km)
Cook Islands 242 120
Niue 260 64
Micronesia 702 6,112
Tonga 747 419
Kiribati 811 1,143
Samoa 3,126 654
Vanuatu 12,189 2,528
Timor Leste 14,919 706
Fiji 18,272 1,129
Solomon Islands 28,896 5,313
Papua New Guinea 464,840 5,152

 

Cooperation in Political, Security and Regional Affairs

Political Affairs

China has so far established diplomatic relations with 10 PICs. In November 2014, President Xi Jinping paid a state visit to Fiji and held a group meeting with leaders of PICs having diplomatic ties with China, where the two sides agreed to establish a strategic partnership featuring mutual respect and common development. In November 2018, President Xi Jinping paid a state visit to Papua New Guinea (PNG) and had another group meeting with leaders of PICs having diplomatic ties with China, where China-PIC relations were elevated to a comprehensive strategic partnership featuring mutual respect and common development.

The two sides have maintained frequent exchanges at the top and other levels. Multiple leaders of Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, Vanuatu, the Federated States of Micronesia, Solomon Islands, Kiribati, PNG, Cook Islands and Niue have visited China. Exchanges and cooperation between government agencies, legislatures and political parties have flourished.

Dialogue and cooperation mechanisms have continued to improve. In 2006, the two sides established the China-Pacific Island Countries Economic Development and Cooperation Forum, which is the highest-level dialogue mechanism on economy and trade between China and PICs and has so far been held three times. In October 2021, the first China-Pacific Island Countries Foreign Ministers’ Meeting was held via video link, which issued the Joint Statement of China-Pacific Island Countries Foreign Ministers’ Meeting. Since the start of COVID-19, the two sides have held two special meetings of vice foreign ministers on COVID response.

The two sides have also established other bilateral and multilateral dialogue mechanisms, including Joint Economic and Trade Committee, Agriculture Ministers’ Meeting and Forum on Fishery Cooperation and Development, and a series of cooperation mechanisms, including the Reserve of Emergency Supplies, Climate Action Cooperation Center and Poverty Reduction and Development Cooperation Center.

Comment:  

China appears to have taken the initiative over the West when the PIC were faced with the global Covid pandemic, as part of its ‘Health Silk Road’ program. That ‘vaccine diplomacy’ and the institutionalisation of ties has undoubtedly seen China rise as a more reliable partner in times of need than the larger regional powers in Canberra and Wellington.   

Security

Senior defense and military officials of PICs have paid multiple visits to China, and participated in events such as Beijing Xiangshan Forum and the Forum for Senior Defense Officials from Caribbean and South Pacific Countries. In September 2015, delegations of Fiji, PNG, Tonga and Vanuatu were invited to China to attend or observe the military parade to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the victory of the Chinese People’s War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression and the World Anti-Fascist War.

In 2014 and 2018, the Peace Ark Hospital Ship of PLA Navy visited Fiji, PNG, Tonga and Vanuatu and carried out activities such as medical tour and medicine donation, which was warmly received by the local people.

In recent years, the two sides have deepened exchanges and cooperation in law enforcement. To implement the solemn commitment of President Xi Jinping made at the 86th Interpol General Assembly to provide police capacity building support to developing countries, the Ministry of Public Security of China has held 23 training sessions of capacity building for PIC law enforcement agencies since 2017, which was attended by a total of 490 law enforcement officers.

Comment:

Much of the West’s criticism has been security issues, and the security enforcement training and equipment provided by China. Yet some of these countries and especially Papua New Guinea have faced serious bouts of sporadic tribal violence. The West’s concerns appear to be the region becoming a de facto arm of the PLA in terms of security provision, yet on a localized level it appears reasonable. Security and peace protects investment and trade.     

Regional Affairs

In 1989, China became an official Dialogue Partner of the Pacific Island Forum (PIF). Starting from 1990, China has sent government delegations to the Forum Dialogue Partners Meeting for 31 consecutive years, which has enhanced China’s cooperation with PIF and its members. In October 2000, the China-PIF Cooperation Fund was established with Chinese government donations to promote trade and investment cooperation between the two sides.

The Chinese government has provided financial assistance to the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) every year since 1998, to support PICs in tackling climate change and achieving sustainable development. China joined the South Pacific Tourism Organization (SPTO) in 2004 (renamed Pacific Tourism Organization in 2019). 

Comment:

Again, China appears to have engaged with the region and provided support – including the serious issue of climate change – ahead of the traditional centres of influence. China, with its massive population is also a major potential tourism client in a volume that Australia and New Zealand just cannot match.   

Economic and Development Cooperation

Trade and Investment

Located at the southward extension of the Belt and Road Initiative, PICs are important economic and trade partners of China. The Chinese side has signed Belt and Road cooperation MOUs with all the 10 PICs having diplomatic relations with China, and signed Belt and Road cooperation plans with PNG and Vanuatu. Progress has been achieved in practical cooperation such as policy, infrastructure, trade, financial and people-to-people connectivity.

Two-way trade has continued to expand. According to statistics of the Chinese side, from 1992 to 2021, total trade volume between China and PICs having diplomatic relations with China grew from USD 153 million to USD 5.3 billion, registering an average annual increase of 13% and expanding by over 30 times in 30 years. Governments and enterprises of PICs having diplomatic relations with China have taken an active part in all editions of the China International Import Expo.

Two-way investment has seen steady progress. According to initial statistics of the Chinese side, by the end of 2021, China’s direct investment in PICs having diplomatic relations with China had reached USD 2.72 billion.

Over the years, Chinese companies have been operating in PICs for mutual benefit. They have promoted localized management and procurement of projects, supported economic development and people’s well-being of local communities, and created a lot of local jobs.

Customs, inspection and quarantine authorities of the two sides have maintained sound cooperation. Since 2006, China has signed multiple cooperation documents with PICs such as Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and PNG on animal and plant sanitation, food safety, and product access.

Comment:

There has been considerable growth in trade between China and the PIC over the past decade in particular. Of the larger PIC, China is now directly competing with Australian corporates over imports and exports, another factor that has upset Canberra.  Major Australian exports to the PIC include wheat, energy (gas), and meats, commodities that China is also highly competitive in.   

Development Cooperation

The two sides have deepened economic and technical cooperation. Over the years, China has provided support and assistance for the development of PICs to the best of its capability. It has carried out a host of economic and technical cooperation projects in PICs, such as road, bridge, wharf, hospital, school, and stadium, which has greatly promoted economic growth and people’s well-being in PICs.

In recent years, China has helped accelerate the connectivity of PICs by carrying out a series of key infrastructure projects, including the Independence Boulevard in PNG, Malakula island highway in Vanuatu, renovation of Tonga national road, and Pohnpei highway in Micronesia.

In October 2021, the Chinese side announced the establishment of the China-Pacific Island Countries Poverty Reduction and Development Cooperation Center on the sidelines of the first China-Pacific Island Countries Foreign Ministers’ Meeting. China has actively supported PICs in developing human resources, and helped PICs train nearly 10,000 talents in various fields, including public administration and social organization, agriculture, forestry, animal husbandry, fishery, and education.

Comment:  

Australia’s investments in Fiji for example have been mainly to service the Australian consumer market, in significant areas such as tourism and manufacturing. That has left little room for infrastructure investment and less capital remaining in Fiji as the operators are mainly Australian rather than Fijian. The Chinese BRI standard is similar but does tend to leave more money on the table for local communities to take advantage of. China sees value in upgrading local economies and creating wealth in order to raise income levels to allow the future purchase of more sophisticated Chinese exports such as automotive and IT. Australia has not tended to support the PIC with infrastructure development and accordingly is being left behind in terms of PIC development strategy and the local regional needs.     

Cooperation in COVID Response and Public Health

According to (incomplete) statistics, China has sent a total of 600 medical workers to PICs, who have treated 260,000 local patients, provided free medical services for over 100 times, and donated a great number of medical equipment and medicines. They have helped improve local residents’ health and local medical service capacity.

In 2014, the China-assisted Navua Hospital started operation in Fiji, bringing benefits to over 30,000 local residents.

In January 2016, the China-Australia-PNG Malaria Prevention Programme was officially launched in PNG, effectively enhancing the ability of malaria prevention and treatment of PNG. In October 2017, the Shenzhen municipal government of China helped launch malaria elimination programme in Kirivina Islands of PNG, freeing local residents from infection of malaria.

After the start of COVID-19, the two sides have been helping each other to combat the disease. China has held more than 10 bilateral or multilateral public health expert meetings via video link with PICs having diplomatic relations with China, to share experience of disease prevention, control, treatment and diagnosis. China has actively provided vaccines, supplies and cash assistance to PICs, and helped the latter build quarantine cubicles and other facilities. So far, China has provided PICs with 590,000 doses of vaccines and over 100 tons of supplies.

Comment

Australia and New Zealand have also been active with vaccine diplomacy – their assistance has been greater than China’s and with more effective Covid vaccines.  

Cooperation in Ocean Affairs, Disaster Prevention and Mitigation, and Climate Change

Ocean Affairs and Environmental Protection

In 2017, China hosted the China-Small Island States Ocean-related Ministerial Round Table with the theme of “Blue Economy and Ecological Islands”. Senior representatives from Samoa, Fiji, Vanuatu and Niue in addition to some of the Indian Ocean nations, attended and addressed the meeting, which adopted and published the Pingtan Declaration. In light of the needs of PICs, China has shared its environmental protection experience and helped PICs improve environmental management capacity. In recent years, China has hosted multiple seminars for PIC officials, including on environmental protection and management, water pollution treatment, and water resource protection.

Climate Change

China takes PICs’ special conditions and concerns on climate change very seriously, and has been committed to helping them strengthen capacity to tackle climate change. In April 2022, the China-Pacific Island Countries Climate Change Cooperation Center was officially launched in Shandong Province of China. Since 2019, China has held three South-South cooperation training sessions for PICs under the theme of “Tackling Climate Change for Green and Low-carbon Development”. China has also provided multiple batches of supplies to PICs to tackle climate change.

China has attached importance to strengthening renewable energy cooperation with PICs, and supported Chinese enterprises in joining the construction of hydro-power stations in countries such as PNG and Fiji.

Disaster Prevention and Mitigation

Since 2006, China has carried out earthquake mitigation cooperation with PICs. It has helped countries such as Samoa, Vanuatu and Fiji to build seismic networks and enhance earthquake monitoring capacity. In December 2021, the China-Pacific Island Countries Reserve for Emergency Supplies was officially launched in Guangdong Province of China.

China provided immediate humanitarian aids when PICs were hit by natural disasters. In January 2022, a large-scale volcanic eruption struck Tonga, which triggered disasters such as tsunami and ash fallout. The Chinese government was highly concerned and acted immediately, making China the first country in the world to provide assistance to Tonga.

Agricultural and Fishery Cooperation

China has launched multiple agricultural technical assistance projects in countries such as PNG, Fiji, Tonga, Micronesia, and Samoa. It has helped PICs improve agricultural production capacity and food security through sending agricultural experts, building demonstration farms, training model farmers, promoting improved crop varieties, and providing technical support.

China has set up a Juncao technical demonstration center in Fiji, and provided Juncao technical assistance to Fiji and PNG.

Since 2009, the China-Pacific Island Countries Agriculture Cooperation Forum has been convened three times, effectively promoting agricultural policy exchanges and business interactions, and boosting economic and trade cooperation in farming, animal husbandry and fishery between the two sides.

In 2019, the First China-Pacific Island Countries Agriculture Ministers Meeting was held in Fiji, which issued the Nadi Declaration of China and Pacific Island Countries on Agricultural Development, charting the course for practical agricultural cooperation in the new era.

In 2021, the First China-Pacific Island Countries Forum on Fishery Cooperation and Development was held in Guangzhou of China, which produced the Guangzhou Consensus of the First China-Pacific Island Countries Forum on Fishery Cooperation and Development, deepening fishery cooperation between the two sides.

Comment:

The PIC have an estimated 30 million km2 reach of the Pacific, and retain sovereign fishing rights over this. That is an area equivalent to about 20% of the entire Pacific Ocean. This is home to the world’s largest and most valuable tuna fishing grounds, along with numerous other species. China will view this as a major commodity, and will be keen to tie up fishing agreements with PIC members. The West’s concern (although the US and EU have also overfished their own Oceans) is that the sheer size of the Chinese consumption potential will wipe much of these stocks out. That requires sustainability actions on a regional basis that all parties will need to observe. To date, China’s reputation in following such agreements has not been as good as it ought to have been.   

Cooperation in Education, Tourism and Culture

Education

China has signed education cooperation MOUs with countries such as Fiji, PNG, Samoa, Tonga, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Kiribati. China has provided government scholarships to PICs to support their young talents in coming to China for study. China has assisted in the construction of primary schools, secondary schools and universities in countries such as PNG, Samoa, Tonga, Micronesia and Vanuatu. In response to voluntary applications of local universities, China has supported the establishment of Confucius Institutes or Confucius Classrooms in countries such as Fiji, PNG, Samoa, Vanuatu and Cook Islands. In 2021, China and Vanuatu signed the Memorandum of Understanding on Cooperation in Chinese Education Program in Primary and Secondary School in Vanuatu, marking the formal inclusion of Chinese language education in Vanuatu’s national education system.

The two sides have worked together actively to set up education institutes. In 2018, education ministries of China and Tonga signed the Memorandum of Understanding on Communication and Cooperation in Education to support the establishment of the Tonga College of Liaocheng University, which has helped Tonga cultivate high-level talents in applied science, and conducted joint research in marine science and PIC studies.

Comment:

There has been some justified criticism of certain Confucius Institutes being aimed at pro-China political education at the expense of the cultural aspect. It has also faced allegations of student monitoring for political gain. While all such institutes do tend to possess an inherent political angle, the PIC would be wise to include overseeing educational bodies to ensure a balanced perspective is provided.    

Tourism

The year 2019 was China-Pacific Island Countries Tourism Year. From November 2019 to January 2020, cruise ships carrying more than 2,300 Chinese tourists departed from Tianjin and docked respectively at 10 PICs and regions including PNG, Vanuatu, and Tonga.

Since 2005, China has provided free booths to the Pacific Tourism Organization (PTO) at the China International Travel Mart every year, invited heads of tourism departments of PTO member states to attend the event, and vigorously supported PICs in promoting their tourism resources in China.

More and more PICs have been made Chinese tourism destinations. So far, nine of the PICs having diplomatic ties with China, except Niue, have become destinations for outbound Chinese tourist groups.

Comment:

As mentioned earlier, the sheer economic clout of China’s outbound tourism dwarfs that of Australia and New Zealand’s ability to provide. However, in certain destinations, a lack of oversight has led to Chinese tourism groups leaving very little on the table for local service providers. The PIC would be well advised to look at the quality of Chinese tourism rather than the quantity and aim PIC tourism at China’s increasingly affluent upper-middle class sector rather than the mass market. Policy discussions and advise from Canberra and Wellington, both highly experienced in this sector would be advisable.     

Culture

In December 2015, the China Cultural Center in Fiji was inaugurated, which has become the first Chinese cultural center in the Pacific Island region. In recent years, China has sent art groups to hold performances, exhibitions, film screening, and teaching and training activities in PICs such as Fiji and Cook Islands. Flagship projects have been carried out, such as “Happy Spring Festival” , “Mid-Autumn Festival: A Moon-moment to Remember”, and “Chinese Culture Week”.

In February 2021, the Fiji Museum joined the International Alliance of Museums of the Silk Road, and became the Alliance’s first member in Oceania.

Comment:

No mention of reciprocal measures to promote the Pacific Islands culture in China. Maritime centres such as Hong Kong, Shanghai and Dalian would be ideal.  

People-to-People and Sub-national Friendship and Cooperation

Women

The friendly exchanges between women’s groups of China and PICs started from the 1990s. In October 2019, the Tongan Women’s Economic Capacity Building Workshop was held successfully in China. In May 2021, the All-China Women’s Federation held the China-Solomon Islands Video Dialogue on Women and Poverty Reduction.

China has also invited PIC women’s institutions and organizations to participate in events held in China, such as the Conference on Commemorating the 10th Anniversary of the Fourth World Women Conference, Forum on Women and Urban Development and Commemorating the 15th Anniversary of the Fourth World Women Conference, and International Forum on Women and Sustainable Development, in an effort to exchange experience in women’s development and promote gender equality and all-round development of women.

Sports

Since the 1990s, a variety of sports exchanges and cooperation have been carried out between China and PICs. International competitions such as the Beijing Olympic Games and the Nanjing Youth Olympic Games have seen the participation of athletes from PICs. The two sides have cooperated with each other in coach exchanges, sports equipment assistance, and athlete training.

In 2015, China and Fiji signed the Memorandum of Understanding on Sports Cooperation. In 2018, the PNG Training Center of China Table Tennis College was jointly established by the Chinese Table Tennis Association, Shanghai University of Sports, and China Table Tennis College, together with the government of PNG, PNG Olympic Committee and PNG Table Tennis Association.

Sub-National Cooperation

The two sides have established 22 pairs of sister provinces/states and cities. Recent years have witnessed a variety of exchanges and cooperation projects between Chinese provinces, such as Guangdong, Shandong, Fujian and Zhejiang, and PICs.

Prospects

China and PICs are all developing countries in the Asia-Pacific region. Despite changes in the international landscape, the two sides have always been good friends treating each other with sincerity and mutual respect, good partners for common development and mutually beneficial cooperation, and good brothers of mutual understanding and mutual learning.

Amid global changes and a pandemic both unseen in a century, the world finds itself in a period of turbulence and transformation, with complex and daunting challenges to global economic growth, social development and security. In this context, the future of all countries is linked together like never before. China and PICs need, more than ever, to strengthen unity, overcome difficulties together, deepen cooperation, and jointly create the future.

Acting on the important consensus of our leaders, China stands ready to work with PICs to further promote high-level exchanges, cement political mutual trust, expand practical cooperation, and strengthen people-to-people ties, so as to build a closer China-Pacific Island Countries community with a shared future.

Comment:

The devil is always in the detail when it comes to China. While the modus operandi on face value appears reasonable, and while it also appears true that the PIC have been somewhat overlooked in terms of potential, an issue which can be traced back in part to failings at the London end of the Commonwealth and a lack of regard shown to smaller PIC. That neglect appears to have filtered down to some extent to attitudes in both Canberra and Wellington.  

What China has now done is single-handedly raise awareness of the PIC potential and areas of concern. The question is whether or not the element of surprise has been delivered too early, or too late. Clearly, there is much that the PIC should do prior to signing security and trade agreements. 

That said, it should also be noted that according to the Lowy Institute Pacific Aid Map Australia is still the largest provider of PIC Aid accounting for 35% of the total. That is followed by New Zealand, Japan and then China. However, what these figures do not tell us is the overall impact on the PIC China has provided and appears willing to continue to provide in terms of loans and actual capital investment, where it is now outstripping all other regional countries.   

The biggest bug bear for the West is China’s take on security. Yet there is more to that than meets the eye in terms of ‘bad China’. In fact, it is not unreasonable for China, given its intent to develop the PIC to wish to protect that. It is also clear that huge areas of the Pacific are essentially blind spots and that increased mapping and understanding of the entire Ocean, its terrain, resources and behaviour would be of great use. 

On the other hand, and especially given the somewhat paranoid curent attitudes of Western military alliances, the PIC security angle provides another expense to ask for more money to build more submarines, warships, and an increased military presence. I doubt that is really necessary. There is a great deal of empty Ocean out there and the risk of conflict is small – unless Western military leaders wish to talk that up to squeeze yet more money from national budgets. Key to understanding the validity of that is to follow the financial trail back to who benefits – shipbuilders, and weapons manufacturers. 

Guess what? That fits in with the Australian Navy’s desire to spend US$168-183 billion on a naval shipbuilding programme, and fits in nicely with the justification for talking up the Quad. 

Exaggerating a Chinese security threat in the PIC is music to the Australian politicians whose business interests are tied to the national shipbuilding industry. It is also Australian policy to develop a multi-billion weapons export sector with the exact same function: talking up a threat to extract more Government money to build more weapons and make more profits.  

Accordingly, the China-PIC issue needs to be addressed with some degree of skepticism when looking at Australian and Western security concerns. That doesn’t mean however that the PIC should not be discussing strategy and policy over many of the Chinese initiatives, because they should. Canberra and Wellington both excellent resources in tourism management, fisheries, aquaculture and the greening of the environment and the PIC would be well advised to put protocols in place to insist upon sustainable limits, environmental protection, and standards in order to keep the PIC from being completely overrun.  

I doubt that Beijing has nefarious reasons for promoting relations with the PIC o its interests in development. The problem isn’t necessarily with the Beijing Government, it’s with the less scrupulous Chinese businesses, run by very hard headed owners that the PIC need to be wary of, rather than military threats from the PLA.  

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About Us

Chris Devonshire-Ellis is the Chairman of Dezan Shira & Associates. The firm assists British and Foreign Investment into Asia and has 28 offices throughout China, India, the ASEAN nations and Russia. For strategic and business intelligence concerning China’s Belt & Road Initiative please email silkroad@dezshira.com or visit us at www.dezshira.com

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