The Battle for the South Pacific is on! China is already in Australia’s backyard, the South Pacific, wooing and cultivating friends with soft power. As part of China BRI initiative, Chinese investment with the South Pacific nations totalled US 1.78 billion outstripping Australia’s AUD137M for subsea internet cable connecting Australia-PNG-Solomon Islands. The current scorecard is China 10 nations and Australia 2 nations. Is Australia’s or New Zealand’s security being threatened? Would the formation of a South Pacific block a risky option for Australia or New Zealand economic health? Or if you can’t beat them, join them?
According to the wiki tribune report (China fills a vacuum in South Pacific from Fiji to Australia 8Feb2018), China has invested in a total of 9 countries in the South Pacific. These countries are listed below with USD in parenthesis.
Total 9 countries: Timor-Leste ($52.16M) ; PNG (632.46M); Federated States of Micronesia ($40.60M); Vanuatu ($243.48M); Fiji ($359.80M); Tonga ($172.06M); Niue ($0.70M); Samoa ($230.12M); and Cook Island ($49.86M).
China is expected to invest an additional US$2.0B in a fish farm in French Polynesia.
These investments may have triggered a China Panic in New Zealand and now, a Japanese media Nikkei Asian Review” has joined the “Battle for South Pacific” with 3 articles which described the recently observed New Zealand version of China Panic and Australia-NZ alliance on a Pacific security framework.
In contrast to the Chinese investments, the Australian government on 11 July 2018 signed a MoU with Solomon and PNG for a subsea internet cable connecting the 3 countries for AUD137M
This scenario reminded us of the Cold War era of the 1960s period where USSR and USA compete to win friends by giving foreign aid to developing and non-aligned countries.
The SMH reported that Senator Penny Wong proposed Australia should set up regional infrastructure fund to assist Pacific nations and expects US to do the same.
There are difficulties with this proposal:
(1) It is too late to counter China soft power as they are already present in the Pacific since 2016. China has already poured in billions and would be difficult and expensive to dislodge it. Our Australian wallet is not big enough to compete with China and we can’t keep this up for too long.
(2) Trump is not too keen on giving money away for nothing and he has already complained about spending too much money on NATO and UN. US private funding for the Pacific is a possibility. If they were profitable investments, the US would have done it years ago.
(3) Most Pacific nations were once under the British Empire and some were transferred to Australia for administration prior to independence. If they perceived Australia as a good friend then they would accept Australia’s assistance over China’s.
(4) Would Australia’s criticism of China’s presence in the Pacific be perceived by Pacific nations as berating them? If so, this would make them more determined to accept China’s assistance.
(5) Getting alignment with Pacific nations and the US would be interpreted by China as a “containment” agenda of the US-Australia-Pacific southern flank. This proposal has risks to Australia’s economic health as China is Australia’s major trading partner.
(6) The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) is a multilateral development bank that aims to support the building of infrastructure in the Asia–Pacific region. Australia is already in this and why the duplication?
(7) New Zealand just entered into the Battle for the South Pacific and it is too early to predict what New Zealand might do in this regional forum.
A proposal that includes China would be consistent with Australia having an independent foreign policy. Since Australia is a member of the AIIB, why not play a leading role in the development of the Pacific nations instead of starting another fund.
In this model, there is no pressure for Pacific nations to take sides in the US-China chess games and for Australia to become the de facto leader of the Pacific in her own right; and without breaking our military relations with the US,
Dr Anthony Pun OAM, is the current National President of the Chinese Community Council of Australia Inc.