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China’s long head start in the Pacific

Australia needs a Catch-Up not a Step-Up in its relationship with the Pacific Islands, and this week started on the long diplomatic journey

Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi (Tiziana Fabi  Reuters)
Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi (Tiziana Fabi, Reuters)


NOOSA – China is now seeking to build upon its existing diplomatic relations with 10 Pacific Islands countries with what it terms ‘a comprehensive strategic partnership featuring mutual respect and common development’.

It has been working towards this wider alliance since November 2014, when President Xi Jinping met in Fiji with the Pacific Islands states with which it had diplomatic relations.

The concept was more clearly defined in November 2018 when, during the APEC summit in Port Moresby, Xi held a group meeting with Pacific Islands leaders which further elevated the strategic relationship.

Since then there have been frequent high level contacts, with the leaders of Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, Vanuatu, the Federated States of Micronesia, Solomon Islands, Kiribati, Cook Islands and Niue all visiting China and, according to China, “exchanges and cooperation between government agencies, legislatures and political parties have flourished”.

A senior PNG government minister told me recently that in recent years there have been many more PNG ministerial visits to Beijing than to Canberra.

When I asked him to put a figure on it, he estimated that there were three or four times more exchanges with China.

Progress in building relationships has been gradual, steady and consistent since 1989, when China became an official ‘Dialogue Partner’ of the Pacific Island Forum.

A Jackson china embassy png
The Chinese embassy in Port Moresby

Since then, China has established the China-Pacific Islands Forum Cooperation Fund (2000), joined the Pacific Tourism Organisation (2004), established the China-Pacific Island Countries Economic Development and Cooperation Forum (2006) and initiated the China-Pacific Island Countries Foreign Ministers’ Meeting (2021).

In addition to these and other high level meetings it has maintained a steady flow of conferences and official visits across a wide range of areas including fisheries, agriculture, climate action, poverty reduction, development cooperation, health, education, law enforcement and defence.

And yesterday, in a visit unprecedented by any previous engagement with the Pacific Islands, China’s foreign minister Wang Yi and his 20-person team arrived in Solomon Islands beginning a 10-day round of meetings that will also take him to Kiribati, Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and East Timor.

“The trip - unprecedented for a Chinese envoy - reveals not only how seriously Beijing is taking its Pacific ambitions but also offers a sharp tactical contrast between China and the western foes it claims are attempting to contain it,” wrote Eryk Bagshaw in the Sydney Morning Herald, highlighting that China’s emphasis on bilateral relationships has strengthened its hand in the Pacific Islands.

China’s view, as expressed in what it called a ‘Fact Sheet’ published as a full page in the PNG Post-Courier yesterday, is that it and Pacific Islands nations “are all developing countries in the Asia-Pacific region”

“Despite changes in the international landscape,” the Fact Sheet states, “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.”

In a section titled Prospects, the Fact Sheet says that with the world “in a period of turbulence and transformation….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.”

These words have now been translated into a draft document, titled ‘China-Pacific Island Countries Common Development Vision’, and a five-year action plan, ahead of a meeting of Pacific Islands foreign ministers and Wang Yi in Fiji on Monday.

The overall intent of the vision and plan is to “strengthen exchanges and cooperation in the fields of traditional and non-traditional security”, according to China.

According to Reuters the draft plan outlines ministerial dialogue on law enforcement and police cooperation as well as pledging cooperation on data networks and for Pacific Islands to "take a balanced approach" on technological progress, economic development and national security.

It seems that, for the foreseeable future, everywhere Senator Wong goes in the Pacific Islands on Australia’s behalf, she will see China coming back.

Scott Morrison put much verbal weight into Australia’s so-called ‘Step-Up’ in the Pacific. In this, as in so many things, his execution never matched his rhetoric.

Australia needs a Catch-Up in the Pacific Islands, and this week – through Senator Wong – started on what will be a long diplomatic journey.


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Harry Topham

The only thing that currently seems to bind the two countries together is their mutual love of all things Rugby League.

Although PNG is a small nation it has punched well above its weight in the domestic level of this sport in particular its inclusion as a side in the Qld Cup it needs more patronage from the League’s papa bilong ol, read the NRL governing body, all to see it finally included in the League’s national competition.

Not a real hurdle really as Rugby League’s cousin, Rugby Union has extended its sphere of influence out to the Pacific Islands.

Maybe what our federal government needs is to have a former rugby star appointed to its sports ministry or at least some patronage, read cash, towards Rugby League’s PNG cousin?

Just a thought.

It's a thought the new deputy PM, Richard Marles, had 10 years or so ago, Harry, although he didn't translate it into anything of substance. Time for him to have another go from his recently acquired and lofty position - KJ

Chips Mackellar

Yes, Paul and Stephen. Thank you both. That is why the new ASOPA was intended to be located at Townsville, as far as conveniently possible away from the Canberra bubble, and where no Canberra based boffin could touch it.

The plan was for the new ASOPA to be administered by an executive which would include some academics seconded from James Cook University, and a military commander seconded from Lavarack Barracks.

The only connection with Canberra was intended to be via the Minister for Pacific Affairs who would be responsible for the funding.

Of course it would cost millions. But instead of direct payments to Pacific Island governments via grants which have a habit of morphing into high-rise buildings in Sydney and Melbourne, far better for the new ASOPA to assist Pacific Island local communities where our foreign aid is really needed.

This would be the perfect Pacific partnership for Australia.

Could it ever happen? Maybe under the present Federal government it could.

Stephen Charteris

Chips, I believe you are on the right track.

What counts in the Pacific is sincerity and loyalty. You won’t see much of that emanating from Chinese investors.

While the days of ASOPA may be over an approach that focuses upon empowering women and men in communities is not.

Throughout Melanesia communities are crying out for services, especially health. If we wish to be a partner of choice, this is where we should be focussing effort.

Historically, Australia has poured treasure into strengthening central and provincial agencies on the assumption that eventually service delivery will improve.

Well, I’m sorry to inform those who believe that, that community health indicators tell a different story.

There is ample opportunity to direct at least some of our effort to the base where services are absent and through consultation with community leaders help facilitate approaches to empower people to assist themselves.

Work within the cultural and resource frameworks that communities can control for themselves. Structure basic service delivery to be part of their lived reality.

In this way our contributions will be relevant to the voters who shape their governments and hopefully their countries engagement with the wider world.

Never forget that in the Pacific life always was and always will be a village.

Paul Oates

Chips, I don't know how many times we have collectively and individually tried to get some worthwhile empathy and action from successive Australian governments about how to engage with out PNG friends.

The end result is always the same. There seems to be a brick wall of intransigent resistance within the Foreign Affairs Department and previous Foreign Affairs Ministers.

Minister Wong is making all the right statements but will she be able to change the prevailing views in the notorious Canberra bubble?

Chips Mackellar

In relation to this Chinese expansion into the Pacific the main problem for Australia is that we are transfixed with the diplomatic niceties of communicating with our Pacific neighbours by dealing directly with their corrupt political leaders.

But way back before the turn of the century those of us who had served in PNG could foresee a looming catastrophe in our region, not then involving China but the potential disaster of failed states.

Our solution to bolster the fabric of our Pacific states was to bypass the corrupt national leaders and deal directly with local leaders in the provinces.

In this context John Pasquarelli and I devised a plan to resurrect the Australian School of Pacific Administration (ASOPA) not in Sydney where it used to be but in Townsville nearer the epicentre of the problem.

The plan was for each ASOPA course to select from each province in PNG, and from the Solomons and Vanuatu, one fairly competent and prominent national business person with no political connections but with promising leadership potential, matched with an equal number of Defence Force personnel stationed in Townsville.

The idea was to set up what the Americans call the 'buddy system' whereby each Australian would mentor one of the Pacific islanders during the ASOPA course and maintain the connection after the course had ended.

Once a year the Australian partner would visit the island reaffirming the bond with the island partner.

During these visits arrangements could be made to supply school, medical or other supplies to the island community.

These supplies would bypass officialdom and go direct to the island partner.

Over the years succeeding ASOPA participants would build up a bonding network of friendship and understanding between Australians and islanders.

The New ASOPA curriculum would eschew the usual esoteric subjects and would teach islanders how to survive adequately in a failed state with practical demonstrations for fixing computer glitches, maintenance of vehicles plant and equipment, securing safe water supplies, building solar powered chargers for computers and mobile phones, and so on.

So while the New ASOPA plan was designed for surviving a failed state it could equally apply to the current Chinese situation of expanding into the Pacific.

In this context we could never hope to outbid the Chinese patronage of Pacific Island leaders but we could win the hearts and minds of the Pacific Island populations to an extent which Chinese hegemony could never achieve.

I presented the New ASOPA Plan to Helen Coonan who was a Minister in the then government and in due course I received the usual officialese reply of weasel words and gobbledegook which in plain English said thanks but no thanks.

But now with a different government?

Paul Oates

Phil you old stirrer. The Communist Chinese Party's approach to their own people is: 'We will make you rich but we won't let you think for yourselves'.

You'll no doubt remember a few years ago after they funded an event in PNG, on the last day the Chinese tried to invade the Minister's Office after event and tell him what he should do and say in his speech.

Likewise now with the Solomon's media claims, who say they weren't allowed to ask any questions about this visit and the only question allowed was from the CCP controlled media.

I wonder what the other Pasifica States will experience?

Is that what we are expected to accept? Surely nothing much has changed since the dishonourable kowtow was expected of all those who sought to engage with the Emperor?

It's all clearly written down in the CCP playbook for those who aren't prepared to learn from history. Try reading the recently published book 'Hidden Hand' to see what is actually going on.

Philip Fitzpatrick

The Chinese approach sounds wonderful.

Maybe Australia should give up on the US and throw it's lot in with China too.

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