NOOSA – In early July the alarm bells would have rung to melting point for the Australian government.
This was when Chinese President Xi Jinping invited Pacific leaders to a 'pre-summit' (now being referred to as a "state visit") he will host in Port Moresby ahead of the APEC leaders summit on the weekend of 17-18 November.
Xi had gazumped APEC – and Australia, which had underwritten Papua New Guinea’s hosting of APEC and spent at least $100 million in doing so.
The invitation was revealed by PNG prime minister Peter O’Neill when he addressed the Fijian parliament in Suva on 9 July.
“The invitation from President Xi Jinping is for those Pacific countries that recognise the One-China policy,” O’Neill said. (That is, Pacific nations which have diplomatic relations with China and not Taiwan.)
O’Neill did not reveal what might be on the agenda of the summit, apart from saying “we want the Pacific to benefit from opportunities from Asia”.
But you did not have to be a foreign policy genius to realise that China, through the astuteness of its president-for-life Xi, had stolen a march in the epic struggle between his country and the United States (Australia responsible for refreshments) to be top dog in the south-west Pacific.
As Fairfax international editor Peter Hartcher wrote earlier this week, “Australia has wasted most of the last decade under the delusion that it could sit passively and ‘balance’ between the US and China.
“One of the reasons that this is such a dangerous idea is that it encourages the inherent Australian temptation to succumb to a complacent inertia.”
But just recently, wrote Hartcher, “the main political parties have awoken to the need to shore up Australia's strategic hinterland, otherwise known as the Pacific.”
Hartcher gave three example of this tardy response: “muscling out” Chinese firm Huawei from building an underwater internet cable linking PNG, the Solomons and Australia (price tag – probably upwards of $200 million); cutting a deal with PNG to build up Lombrum naval base on Manus as a joint Australian-PNG (and likely US) military facility; and, when it saw China involving itself in a proposed regional Pacific military training centre in Fiji, negotiating to make Australia the sole foreign donor.
As Hartcher wrote: “It says to the Pacific states that Australia doesn't actually care about the people of the Pacific. It says, loud and clear, ‘we only care about you as a chessboard where we counter China's moves’.”
And therein is the problem PNG Attitude has pointed to for many years: Australia relinquishing the opportunity to develop a true partnership with PNG and the Pacific that goes beyond 'hello neighbour, here's some money, please be there when we want you'.
Sitting in a Port Moresby hotel room during a visit in April I had written:
“Irascible and grumpy though I may sometimes feel about both places [Australia and PNG] - an old man’s privilege - I do think affectionately of them and wish they had developed more of a mutual partnership not just a dwindling relationship.
“Perhaps some prospect remains that, one day, the closeness we felt 40 or so years ago might regenerate and transform into something truly substantive.
“Our two countries would benefit immeasurably from developing a stronger bond than a ‘relationship’. We need something more durable. A partnership of equality, mutuality, honesty and authenticity.
“I hope it is not too late for that, although I fear it may be.”
In the intervening months, despite Australia’s belated defensive reaction to China's incursions, I have observed China (until quite recently a virtual stranger in the Pacific) display much more alacrity than Australia (with a much longer, closer and more tied relationship) in its dealings with the region.
In an address in Port Moresby during that same visit earlier this year, I said:
“The ideal, of course, would be to go beyond a workable relationship, which we seem to have, and to develop the stronger bond of partnership – implying principles that can pass various tests: of mutuality, responsibility, equality, authenticity, transparency, transformational capacity and ethics.
“To achieve this will require a joint commitment to the shared national interests of both countries – which means subsuming commercial, corporate, institutional and personal interests to the greater goal of bilateral understanding. I wonder if we know how to do that.”
Six months later, I've firmed up my view. I don’t believe we do know how to construct a fair dinkum partnership. Nor does the current leadership of PNG.
And the APEC forum, just over two weeks away, may demonstrate this reality to Australia’s humiliation.
First, there is the presence of Xi and the absence of Trump. Talk about giving away a ‘gimme’ – it’s almost a capitulation by the US. It shows both the lack of Australian influence in the relationship and Trump's negligence.
Then there’s the scene-stealing of China’s pre-forum gathering for Pacific island leaders – Australia, New Zealand and friends of Taiwan excluded.
As well as generating this rather adroit idea, China will have put much thought into what may eventuate at that assembly. And having taking careful aim, I’m sure it won’t miss.
There are bound to be strategically significant hand-outs for the host, perhaps lesser ones for others, and almost certainly a new consultative or similar arrangement (let’s call it the China-Pacific Collaboration) which will cement a continuing policy and development framework.
Some of these will put the frighteners on Australia – especially as it’s very likely there will be a few that will further threaten Australia’s influence in the region.
And that leads me to conjecture about the scene post-APEC in PNG. Amongst the political and bureaucratic classes there are high expectations that investment benefits will flow. They may be right but it probably won’t be significant private investment, it will come from the contesting parties to power in the south-west Pacific.
As a number of candidates hover in the wings to take over from a stumbling Peter O’Neill, it seems there may be a long hangover from this brief, expensive party.
A hangover that will last a lot longer than the decorations already festooning Waigani in anticipation of APEC.
A brief, expensive party leaving a legacy of everything still to be done and little left to celebrate in a country - and a region -where there is a new burgeoning power that knows exactly what it wants and an old, dithering realm, flummoxed and seemingly on the wane.