BEVAN RAMSDEN. Caught in the middle of US-China contention, Australia sides with the US in their efforts to contain and keep China out of the Western Pacific.

Australia is currently facing a major change in strategic circumstances and the argument for pursuing a truly independent foreign policy, for the economic benefit and security of the Australian people, has never been so great. 

The struggle between the US and China over dominance in the Western Pacific was never clearer than at the recent APEC conference in PNG.  And their mutual hostility prevented the APEC conference from producing a final communique because of lack of agreement between the two super powers over trade issues. The world’s top two economies have become embroiled in a spiralling trade war, imposing tit-for-tat tariffs on each other’s goods in a confrontation experts warn could torpedo the global economy. The media headlines captured the situation accurately.

The Australian editorial of 19 November called the China-US contention evident at the APEC  conference a “struggle for supremacy in the Indo-Pacific region”.

ABC News, 19 November stated: “APEC 2018: US-China clash at regional meeting leads to historic summit failure”.

SBS News of 19 November said: “Australia is caught in the middle of escalating tensions between China and the United States, as the superpowers battle over trade and strategic control”.

China has been extending its influence in the Western Pacific among the island countries with development loans and assisting in infra-structure development under its Belt & Road Initiative (BRI). US Vice President Pence, in his speech at the ASEAN conference, appealed to regional nations to avoid seduction from China. He said: “We don’t drown our partners in a sea of debt; we don’t coerce or compromise your independence”.

ABC News, 19 November 2018 reports:  “The Chinese Foreign Minister has hit back at criticism of his nation’s aid in the Pacific as the country continues to strengthen ties with Papua New Guinea”. Wang Yi defended the country’s aid program and said those “pointing fingers” should put their efforts into contributing to the region. He stood alongside his PNG counterpart, Rimbink Pato, as he insisted the country’s support came with no strings attached.  Pato also defended the countries’ relationship. “There is no threat to our sovereignty, we are a sovereign nation and so is every other nation of the Pacific”, he said.

China also announced that it is deferring Tonga’s debt payment for five years to assist that country in repayments following Tonga’s sign up to China’s BRI.

China has promised the PNG:

  • A $US 300 million soft-loan deal for China’s approved projects;
  • $1.5 billion to extend the majority Chinese-owned Ramu nickel mine;
  • Free movement of politicians and diplomats between the two countries for short stays;
  • To work on the University in Peter O’Neil’s home province;
  • To create a joint economic committee.

To oppose Chinese influence in the region, Mike Pence announced a US-Australia military pact to expand a PNG naval base: “The United States will join forces with Australia in the development of a new naval base to be built in Papua New Guinea”.  This naval base on Manus Island will be redeveloped and run  jointly by PNG, the US and Australia. Paul Kelly, editor-at-large, writing in The Australian on 19 November, calls this redevelopment of the Manus Island base a “pivotal naval facility” which “reveals the fightback stand of the Trump administration and the engineering of Australia’s alliance with the US to meet the rise of China”. The Manus Island facility is a deep water port which can port aircraft carriers and a large naval fleet.

There is local opposition to the redevelopment of the Manus Island port. The ABC News on 21 November reports:

“Manus Governor Charlie Benjamin told the ABC’s Pacific Beat program that the deal to redevelop the Lombrum naval base was unnecessary and that he does not believe the base serves the interests of locals. ‘To be honest, PNG is not at war and we do not need any help right now, simply by coming to Lombrum is accommodating the interests of Australia and America’, Mr Benjamin told Pacific Beat.”

Other actions taken to counter Chinese influence and its BRI investment program in the region include:

  • Australian Aid funding an optical fibre cable to the Solomons to block a rumoured Chinese plan to do the same.
  • The funding by Australia, the US , Japan and NZ of a roll-out of electricity and internet cable to 70% of PNG by 2030 with Australia to fund $25 million in the first year of the 12 year project; this is $US 1.7 billion project.
  • Australia, Japan and the US will setup a fund for infra-structure investment for Indo-Pacific countries.

In addition, Australia will match the Chinese free-movement passport between regional countries and China, by introducing  a new multi-entry, multi-year card to enable Pacific politicians and business travellers to come and go from Australia with ease.

This infrastructure development assistance and loans to the Pacific Island countries from whoever would obviously be very welcome, providing they address real needs of PNG or other Island countries concerned and providing any debt repayments are within the capacity of those recipient countries. However, it is informative that the final communique of the 49th Pacific Islands Forum held in Nauru over 3-6 September this year pointed out that low-lying Pacific communities want to see effective action on climate change, which is an existential threat to their future, given a high priority.

What are the longer term implications for Australia arising from the various actions and counter-actions which are occurring in the Western Pacific Region? Australia may be risking continuing favourable trade relations with China in siding so clearly with the United States whose objectives appear aimed at containment of China to prevent it displacing itself as the dominant global military power in the region. In addition, the US is expressing hostility to China  by slapping tariff barriers against a range of its imports to the US which has forced the Chinese to retaliate with tariff barriers against US imports. It is premature to argue that this growing contention between China and the United States will result in war. But this situation in which a rising power challenges an existing dominant power  has occurred 16 times in the last 400 years according to an analysis by Graham Allison in his book Destined for War. In the majority of those cases the challenge was only resolved through war; an ominous conclusion. Let’s hope it never happens, but if it does will Australia side with the US in a war against China or take a more prudent, neutral and independent position ?

Australia is currently facing a major change in strategic circumstances and the argument for pursuing a truly independent foreign policy, for the economic benefit and security of the Australian people, has never been so great.

Bevan Ramsden is a NSW representative on the Co-ordinating Committee of IPAN, the Independent and Peaceful Australia Network.

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