Factoring the Pacific into Australia’s approach to China

Screenshot of the Lowy Institute's Chinese aid map
Screenshot of the Lowy Institute's Chinese aid map
Written by Bal Kama

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 Second World 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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Bal Kama

Bal Kama is a PhD Candidate at ANU’s College of Law, examining the relationship between the judiciary and the parliament under the Papua New Guinea Constitution. He is a solicitor in the ACT, 2016 Commonwealth Pacific Young Person of the Year, and Founder and Director of Kama Scholars Foundation (KSF), a community-based scholarship and mentoring program for village students and youths in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea.

5 Comments

  • Thanks Bal

    For shedding some lights into the deepening influence of China foothold in the Pacific and how much influence Australia had exerted in the Pacific. Including the evolving domestic expectations and demands exerting pressures on Pacific countries’ government to venture regionally and globally to court new allies and secure more aid.

    For China, we cannot say much because they move to aid Pacific countries’ development areas with bigger impact projects to drive the local economy, its looking for bigger space in the Pacific. Whether it is sustainable or not at the end is not an issue for the host countries. Also, politically Australia is not in a position to use its Sino Aussie bilateral relations to talk about Pacific foothold.

    Australia needs to understand the domestic and regional politics played out by Pacific countries past, present and their aspirations for the interim future. Pacific countries are not the same in the last one or two decades, leadership in the small island countries have shifted with new crop of leaders taking the helm of political aisles in their countries who are much better or worse off than the previous leaders.

    These leaders tried to look beyond Australia to foster new trade and foreign relations and China – a growing economy in the East Asian region, is more of an ideal helping hand that Pacific countries more likely to grab.

    Apart from reorganizing its geopolitical and strategic position around economic and foreign relations with the Pacific countries, Australia needs to focus on training potential future leaders of the Pacific islanders to think the way Canberra would want to. Otherwise Australia would spend more to match China foothold in the Pacific but less likely to attract attention of the current crop of Pacific leaders.

    • I like the comment made by JK Domyal.

      As someone who lived and studied in China. I feel that China has more to offer PNG compared to Australia. This is reflected in the PNG government’s position. Also the recent trip by NCD’s political heads and Tkatchenko’s comment on China in the local media supports this point. PNG has a special place for Australia but we cannot ignore the rise of China.

      In regards to security, it is a security dilemma that Australia is faced with. The increase in China’s capability is a threat to other established powers or middle powers like Australia. Australia will slowly lose its influence in the region as China continues to grow. The challenge is now for Australia to change the way it sees its Pacific neighbours, especially PNG. Maybe it is time to see PNG as a peer regardless of the developing country tag rather than small brother. In order words, a mutual relationship rather then a patron-client relationship.

  • What has been missing in these discussions about China, is not so much what the Chinese Government is doing, but the infiltration of Chinese businesses and its increasing dominance across the Pacific Islands. The only countries that have so far been able to resist it is perhaps, the Federated States of Micronesia, Niue and the Cook Islands. In Melanesia there is already a very strong presence of Chinese retailers with Honiara being so visible when you drive from the airport to the end of town. Honiara has literally become a Chinese town, and this is in the capital of a country where Australia spent almost $3 billion over 14 years. In the Marshall Islands, most of the taxi’s are owned by Chinese and a good number of shops are also owned by Chinese. The same trends are discernible in Kiribati, Tuvalu and Tonga. The Chinese Government does not need to build a military base to extend its influence in the islands. The Chinese are already doing it by crowding out the locals from their turf and making them increasingly bystanders in their own country! Talk about Chinese influence has been about its government but they are already have a big influence where it matters.. in the pockets of peoples where they dominate commerce and in what they buy and can and cannot do. This is a far bigger internal security risk than that posed by the engagement by the Chinese Government which so far are perceivable, imaginary risk seen by those whose influence are perceived to be waning. In the Pacific Islands, there is enough space and problems for us to engage with other countries to help us address, and not believe that it is just the line of a few

  • In the debate about Australia’s influence in the Pacific and whether it is declining, there has been little discussion of Australia’s attitude to climate change. But my experience with Pacific Islander students and churches suggests they are appalled by what they see as Australia’s callous disregard for the dangers of sea level rise, increased cyclones and the other harms of climate change which will affect the islands. Examples of Australian politicians laughing at the plight of Islanders go down very badly.

    Clearly this is not the only reason for the distancing of relations between Australia and the Pacific Islands – but is more important than some commentary would suggest.

  • Maybe its time to redefine Chinese antics in the Pacific region – from ‘soft power’ to ‘sharp power’. While soft power is limited to spreading one’s culture and values abroad,’sharp power’ coined by the National Endowment for Democracy, a Washington-based think tank, more appropriately describes Chinese influence, through coercing opinion abroad, economically and otherwise (short of outright conflict), see:
    https://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21732524-china-manipulating-decision-makers-western-democracies-best-defence
    There have been reports that Chinese development loans through EXIM Bank and AIIB, although given at concessional rates, do not allow debt restructuring, or the ability to write these loans off should a recipient country default. Hence, China is spreading its reach in economically vulnerable countries, repossessing key infrastructure that these loans are used to build. The Pacific region’s need to be conscious of Chinese interests cannot be understated: China may help meet our short term interests, but an overarching regional dominance is its long term goal.

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