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Factoring the Pacific into Australia’s approach to China

Chinese-aid-map (Lowy Institute)
Map showing scale of Chinese aid in the Pacific (Lowy Institute)

BAL KAMA | DevPolicy Blog

CANBERRA - The ‘China-in-the-Pacific’ dilemma has once again hit the headlines in Australia, this time with a proposed naval base in Vanuatu.

It was promptly rejected by the Vanuatu government, but the likelihood of having Chinese military hardware on a long-term basis in the Pacific has raised significant discussion on the strategic implications for Australia and its allies.

Australia has long maintained a well-established and enduring relationship with the people of the Pacific. But China’s influence is undeniably increasing. Its investment in soft power in particular has been a success, not only in economic terms but also in the lives of ordinary people.

Chinese infrastructure projects, while not always successful, have enabled access to government services, giving people a sense of modernity and development. China’s growing diaspora in the Pacific is also increasingly active in community engagements and maintain a close influence on local politics.

China’s people-to-people relations continue to expand as it becomes a first responder to disaster relief efforts, shows goodwill through local charities, and provides scholarships for Pacific students to prestigious Chinese universities.

To bridge the cultural gap, China is currently considering building Chinese language schools in the Pacific, beginning with Papua New Guinea.

Australia believes, as part of its strategic policy, that a secure Pacific means a secure Australia. China’s emergence in the Pacific is seen by some as a threat to this state of order.

Recent rhetoric in Australia seems to be aimed towards pressuring Canberra to deepen its engagement with the Pacific as a way of countering China and projecting Australia as a partner of choice for the Pacific countries.

But these approaches are not new, considering Australia’s extensive awareness of China’s influence in the region. Australia’s interest in the Pacific has varied over the years, but the Chinese question – at least in the last two decades – has been a cornerstone of Australia’s strategic policy.

However, one problem is how this issue is framed and perceived.

Rhetoric in Australia has mostly been about countering China in order to secure Australia’s interests in the Pacific. There is less discussion about Pacific interests or, more specifically, how Australia’s position on China would secure Pacific interests.

While the rhetoric about ‘securing Australia’s interests in the Pacific’ is hoisted with zeal here in Australia, it is viewed among some in the Pacific as neo-colonialist. Pacific leaders do not want to be seen succumbing to securing Australia’s interest at the expense of that of their people.

Unlike in the past, Pacific leaders are increasingly assertive and well-informed of the geopolitical nuances currently at play in the region. They have intelligent military and political advisors dedicated to consolidating their sovereignty and exploiting the current geopolitical tussle, while acutely sensitive to any sign of bullying or cohesion.

Australia was traditionally a leader in the Pacific, but this has been reconfigured. China sees past Australia to the United States as the force to be reckoned with in the region, and that is apparent to Pacific leaders.

Australia’s prestige and influence is declining in this new regional order, although it still maintains a strong influence on the people’s ‘hearts and minds.’

In ‘The Embarrassed Colonist’, Sean Dorney refers to the lack of Pacific content in Australia’s public consciousness as an important reminder of the disconnect between modern Australia and the people of the Pacific.

Australia will need to return to the time when the Pacific was part of Australia’s ‘family’. The Pacific is embedded in Australia’s history (for instance, see section 51 (xxx) of the Australian Constitution). The camaraderie during the World War II continues to project Australia as brave, while colonialism ties Australia to a common history and shared responsibility to the Pacific.

Australia needs to consider these close historic and political relations when contemplating the appropriate approach to the Chinese question.

Australia is not alone in its anxiety over China’s influence. The people of the Pacific are also wary of China, as its system of government, business model and institutions are at odds with their democratic society. Chinese business influence has resulted in violence in the past. China is aware of these sensitivities.

Within this context, Australia is not an outsider. The important question for Australia, then, is not how Australia can secure its interests in the Pacific, but how Australia’s position can secure Pacific interests in the Pacific and beyond.

This approach will require Australia to be genuine and make some sacrifices. Pacific leaders will honour Australia’s sacrifice if they see it. If this approach is appropriately framed, it will bolster the rule-based regional order Australia intends to create, as well as restore respect of Australia.

Such respect is likely to be followed by appropriate compromises among Pacific leaders, who would be satisfied that Australia has done all it could to secure Pacific interests in regional and global platforms on issues pertinent to the Pacific, such as climate change, good governance, infrastructure development, trade, etc.

Foreign relations are about giving as well as taking, and Australia must be prepared to give the Pacific its proper place of importance if Australia is to receive good tidings from the Pacific in return.

Otherwise, this anxiety about China in the Pacific is likely to continue, as Pacific countries, feeling restless and neglected, search for new allies.


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Arthur Williams

BBC reported yesterday that the first bomber from China landed on a man-made island, possibly Woody Island.

In April ABC reported HMAS Anzac, HMAS Toowoomba and HMAS Success were challenged by the PLA Navy as they were transiting towards Vietnam through the disputed Spratley Islands area in the South China Sea.

The BBC map of the ocean claimed by China ends up thousand miles south including oceans off Philippines and even alongside Malaysian Borneo.

I understand Vietnam was pressurised by 'big daddy' neighbour to end its oil project in the so-called Red Emperor oil field it began exploring in 2009.

Interestingly Repsol was the company developing the project and said they would lose $200 million as a result of the cancellation. Repsol are in PNG at the Stanley LNG project in Western Province.

Paul Oates

Hey Michael, maybe there should be a TV fantasy show called 'Know your neighbour'?

Each week a new nation within our Pacific family could feature with the relevant PM down to the bloke or woman in the street being asked questions about their perception of their neighbours.

The next week's program intro would then show in the first half what it was really like in the neighbouring country as opposed to what the perception was in the last week's show.

There could be cash prizes for those who got it right and a consolation (booby prize) for the greatest fallacy.

Olsem wanem a?

Michael Dom

The Pacific Solution on Manus and Nauru: using your neighbours (in fact your colonial children!) never goes down well socially, even if there's money and economics involved.

After over a century Australia still has to learn how to live with its Pacific 'family'.

Politics is not always about benefit to society. The State is a selfish entity when it needs to be.

Philip Fitzpatrick

The Chinese are also invading Australia, so we are no different than our Pacific neighbours in this regard.

Geopolitical issues aside, what is also a worry is the potential Chinese influence has to change the essential character of Australian and Pacific character.

One of the reasons why Australians (if not their politicians) get on well with people in the Pacific is that they share their easy-going approach to life. In Australia I put that down to the large component of people with Irish heritage in the population.

Not so with the Chinese, they are pushy and aggressive, especially when it comes to business. I'm not sure I'd want to live in an Australia like that and I'm sure many Pacific islanders would share the same sentiment.

We tend to gauge the impact of outside influence in terms of economic or military advantage but it would be wise to also consider its social impact.

We have a great model to compare with in the American experience. Their influence on us has been particularly insidious, most of the garish and trivial crap we engage in on a daily basis can be traced back to America.

Remaining Australian, or Papua New Guinean or Tongan or anything else is going to be difficult in the coming years. Let's home we can hang on to our unique outlook.

Paul Oates

Put succinctly, the old adage of ‘What’s in it for us’ will always hold true. The issue is how this self-evident truth or axiom translates to each level of awareness in each Pacific nation involved?

The age of Information has morphed into the age of over information. Hand held electronic devices have now taken over from the mass media and the possibility of fake news becoming fact has influenced many people who have no way of checking whether it actually happened except consulting others on social media who may also be misinformed.

Australian media clamour for advertising space and public attention by traditionally providing any dramatic and shocking images available wherever they occur in the world.

Devastation from a cyclone in the Pacific will always get top priority in the evening news and sometimes even supersede the football results and personal trivia of the various football codes and their modern day gladiators for public attention and adoration.
When it comes to everyday life and the daily struggle for survival in the Pacific, the average Australian easily gets diverted. In this they are no different than most other people who take much of their information from mass media and their political leaders who conveniently reduce their filtered messages into the time honoured three second grabs.

As Chris Overland suggests, the concept of Globalisation apparently encompasses the wonderfully camouflaged Orwellian equation that the few appear to have become far more equal than others.

Our education systems have become so manipulated and leaning towards politically correctness that the benefits of an education in history have been erased in favour of what the progressive designers are now schooling the next generation in what they should believe in.

Again, as Chris suggests, this situation has occurred many times before and invariably leads to a shock of some kind when reality kicks in in some form. The four horsemen of human population control are ever circling awaiting an opportunity for one or more to come into play.

Our Pacific friends are no less affected than most other nations and the real issues are hard to sort out as the proverbial wheat from the chaff. History has given many lessons to those who wish to learn. One historical lesson is that when Australia was a governing power in the Pacific it didn’t try to hold onto its position of power. How it now seeks to continue its influence will be up to today’s political leaders. The average ocker, if there is such a person, is far too interested in the cost of living and the weekend’s footy scores.

The time is fast approaching however when our politicians will have to drop their planned next election strategies and actually take an interest in neighbouring nations in our region.

Bals’ timely advice seems to strongly resonate with me at least.

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