What can Australia do to restore and preserve our sphere of influence in the South Pacific, and deny it to China?
Our government has at least taken the first step by recognising there is a problem. It is now clearly understood that Australia can no longer take our influence for granted.
Instead we face a classic contest for influence against the region’s, and perhaps soon the world’s, most powerful country. That contest is part of something even bigger – a challenge as to who will preside over the wider East Asian and Western Pacific region.
We have been here before, of course. Despite our remoteness, Australia is again, as we were in 1942, on the front line of a major contest over the future of Asia. Scott Morrison seems to understand this, and he has made the South Pacific his signature foreign policy priority.
But practical policy steps? The centrepiece of the Morrison government’s strategy so far is the announcement, at last year’s APEC Summit in Port Moresby, of plans to develop a naval base on Manus Island, in partnership with the United States.Manus played a significant role as a US base in the Pacific War, but it is not clear what exactly a new base there will do for us. Perhaps Morrison hopes that US involvement, announced at APEC by Vice President Mike Pence, will deter China from seeking to build a strategic presence in our backyard. If so, he misunderstands the nature of the United States-China rivalry in Asia.
Beijing seeks opportunities to compete with America for position and influence in the Western Pacific, as we have seen in the East and South China Seas, because such contests provide China with opportunities to display its growing power and reach, and to demonstrate its willingness to confront Washington.
US involvement in the Manus base and in other initiatives to counter growing Chinese influence may well encourage rather than deter Beijing in its efforts. So, diplomatically the initiative could prove counter-productive, even if the US is seriously committed to it – which, in Trump’s Washington, is not to be taken for granted.
In operational terms, a base on Manus would be of little use to defend Papua New Guinea from China. So the new Manus base is, in reality, just a bit of flag-showing. It raises a fundamental question: under what circumstances would we be willing to fight to keep China out of our immediate neighbourhood? That needs a lot of thought, but it is clear we would not, as things stand, fight to prevent China setting up a military base if it was doing so with the agreement of a host government.
Canberra’s second big initiative has been to try to counterbalance China’s growing aid program – especially large-scale infrastructure projects under the sprawling Belt and Road Initiative – by setting up, with Washington and Tokyo, a rival fund for infrastructure projects in the South Pacific. This is an obvious move, but not necessarily a smart one, because it will be hard to beat China in this game. Its pockets are deeper and its expertise in building infrastructure is now formidable. And while we accuse China of building expensive glamour projects that buy political influence while doing little for economic and social development, we may well find ourselves doing the same thing. Long experience – for example, with Papua New Guinea’s Highlands Highway – tells us that infrastructure projects alone achieve little. Development is much harder than simply building a bridge.
The third initiative in Australia’s pushback against Chinese encroachment is using the South Pacific’s multilateral forums to mobilise opposition to Beijing’s growing influence and to bolster support for Canberra’s regional leadership. This has so far met a very mixed response. Some Pacific island countries are worried by China’s growing power, but reluctant to become pawns in a contest of great-power politics. This is symbolised by the islands’ rejection of the label “Indo-Pacific”. This concept, so dear to policymakers in Canberra, Washington and Tokyo, frames the region as united in resisting China’s hegemonic ambitions. Pacific islanders have preferred to sidestep this by talking instead of the “Blue Pacific”, an evocative but vague concept that shifts the focus from geostrategic rivalries and towards the unique challenges, particularly rising sea levels, that nations with small territories but vast oceanic areas face. The reality is our South Pacific neighbours do not see the contest with China the same way we do.
Abandoning the sphere of influence
Nothing we are doing so far seems to be working. What might we do instead? One option is a radical recasting of our relations and role in the South Pacific, to draw our neighbours much more closely under our wing. Ever since their intractable post-independence problems became obvious in the late 1980s, it has been natural to wonder whether it might be possible to turn the clock back, if only halfway. No one contemplates re-colonisation, of course, but might there be some new model of engagement that gives Canberra a far larger and more effective role in these nations’ development, towards which our leadership of the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) might point the way? This could address barriers to development that our neighbours have been unable to overcome as independent states, and vastly strengthen our capacity to keep potential enemies out of range of our territory.
Yet, leaving aside the question of how and why our neighbours might be induced to consent to such an arrangement, the cost to Australia would be enormous. It might be the only way to preserve the kind of sphere of influence that generations of Australian policymakers have believed to be essential for our security, but that doesn’t make it a credible policy option. It may instead simply confirm that our assumptions about our regional influence are no longer realistic.
The better option would be to step back, abandoning our traditional ideas about keeping intruders out of the South Pacific. In fact, there may be no alternative. China poses an unprecedented challenge to the strategic assumptions that have framed our policies since European settlement. We have never encountered an Asian country as powerful as China is now, let alone as powerful as it will likely become in the decades ahead. Its ambitions constitute a far bigger threat to US leadership in Asia than ever before, and a far bigger threat to Australia’s position in the South Pacific than we have ever faced. The costs to us of trying to keep China out of the region might simply prove impossible to bear. Or, to be more precise, it might prove cheaper to build military capabilities that in a war could neutralise Chinese bases in the South Pacific (by denying access to them and subjecting them to strike attacks) than to prevent China from establishing such bases in peacetime.
We probably need to build those forces anyway, because the capabilities we would need are much the same as those required to independently defend our territory from a major power – a possibility we need to consider as America’s position in Asia fades. The sobering reality is China will likely succeed in pushing the United States out and taking its place as the primary power in the Western Pacific – and not just because of Trump. The costs and risks to America of maintaining its position in the region may soon exceed its interests. To defend ourselves without US support, we need to focus on developing the capability to protect our air and sea approaches from hostile forces, and to attack bases and lodgements on our territory or close to our shores. If we are serious about our security, we should start building these forces now.
The uncomfortable reality is that preserving an exclusive sphere of influence in the South Pacific is not going to be possible against a regional power that is far stronger than any we have ever confronted, or even contemplated. It might turn out the more we try and fail to exclude China from the South Pacific, the less influence we will have there. Recognising and accepting the inescapable reality of China’s power will enable us to respond more effectively. A more complex and demanding kind of engagement than any we have known since we relinquished colonial rule is what is needed in the new Asia of the 21st century.
We are only just realising the rise of China changes everything in Australia’s international environment, and that our foreign policy has to adapt accordingly. So far our governments have tried to respond with as little change as possible. Morrison will find, as he settles into his first term as an elected prime minister, that embracing rather than evading change will be the biggest challenge he faces. If he is as serious about the South Pacific as he claims, he should start, perhaps paradoxically, by abandoning the idea of an exclusive sphere of influence, and then guide Australians to take a much greater interest in our neighbourhood than we ever have before.
This is an edited extract of Hugh White’s essay In Denial: Defending Australia as China looks south to be published in Australian Foreign Affairs 6 on 15 July.