The omission of PNG and the Pacific Islands from the alliance is both a misguided decision and a missed opportunity
NOOSA – It’s a bold if obvious idea that crept onto the agenda while we in Australia were having a general election.
It’s also a flawed idea but, given its general air of contempt towards the Pacific Islands, I’m not surprised the Morrison government let it slide.
On Monday, while newly-anointed Australian prime minister Anthony Albanese was jetting to Tokyo for a Quad summit, US president Joe Biden was announcing the creation of an economic bloc to counter China’s dominance and reassert American influence in the Asia-Pacific region.
Biden said he had enlisted 12 other nations to join the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (let’s call it IPEF because they will) alongside the US: Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
No Pacific Islands nation is represented in the bloc, which represents 40% of the global economy in the fastest-growing part of the world.
Given IPEF’s membership, it seems the US expects Australia and New Zealand to exercise some kind of stewardship over Papua New Guinea and the Pacific Islands when decisions are made that affect their interests.
I do not believe Pacific Islands’ countries will find such an arrangement acceptable.
In terms of China’s steady expansion into the south-west Pacific, the omission of PNG and the Pacific Islands from the alliance seems to be both a misguided decision and a missed opportunity, given that a key purpose is to offer an alternative to Beijing’s leadership in the region.
The decision is even more perplexing when three countries much smaller than PNG (with a population of nine million) are joining the boc: Singapore (5.8 million), New Zealand (4.8 million) and even Brunei (440,000).
A wiser US might have cleared some space at the round table for PNG or, at the very least, for representatives of the Pacific Forum.
The present composition of the bloc is nothing less than a calculated insult to PNG and Pacific Islands governments.
It suggests they can be adequately represented by other powers or in other ways subdued into conformance with decisions made.
The New York Times said there had been “uncertainty and scepticism” in the region about what the new framework would mean.
American officials have failed to precisely determine its functions much beyond an airy “we’re writing the new rules for the 21st-century economy” (Biden) and “the most significant international economic engagement that the US has ever had in this region” (US commerce secretary, Gina M Raimondo).
In December, China launched its own Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership linking 15 Asia-Pacific economies in the world’s largest trade bloc.
Most of the countries Biden signed up for IPEF already belong to the Chinese bloc.
Beijing has criticised IPEF for benefiting only a limited group of nations.
He reached this conclusion after observing what he sees at Australia's exaggerated response to the recent Solomon Islands development and security agreement with China.
Australia had “embarrassed itself by going into hysterics over a neighbour’s choice of friends,” Teow said.
He criticised an article by 9fax journalist Peter Hartcher who wrote that “the advent of a potential Chinese military base destabilises Australia’s near northern approaches.
“The nation has now lost the ability to fight wars abroad.”
“Unfettered speculation about nefarious intentions,” snorted Teow derisively.
“It seems quite a stretch of the imagination that a mere handshake can morph into a military base to destabilise Australia and compromise its capability ‘to fight wars abroad’!
“The last phrase is colonial discourse at its best,” he said.