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Opinion

Australia’s Pacific influence has never been weaker – and China’s has never been stronger

I have been observing, and at times advising on, the politics of the South Pacific for more than four decades. In that time I have especially followed Australia’s diplomatic and strategic approach to its immediate region.

It gives me no satisfaction to say that our influence – at just about every level – has never been weaker than it is today. And certainly no satisfaction to add that China’s has never been stronger than it is today.

In this contribution I want to outline the reasons why we are in this alarming position, something the mainstream media in Australia has generally not really examined. And I will outline why the Glasgow climate conference is simply confirming both.

I have been very disappointed with key aspects of our strategic approach to our region – led by Papua New Guinea but including other close neighbours such as the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa.

Readers will be aware that I believe the so called “Pacific Step-Up” agenda has underperformed, and its flag ship Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility has become an embarrassment.

But events leading up to and now including the Glasgow climate summit almost defy comprehension as they relate to our diminished influence, and China’s absolutely unchallenged growth in its influence in every one of our neighbours, with the recent exception of Samoa.

China speaks to Pacific island nations to orchestrate an agreement on their relationship. Source: Supplied

It may surprise, if not anger, readers to know that Australia has financially helped the leaders and delegations from a number of our neighbours to attend the Glasgow summit! Yes, it appears we have helped with air fares, accommodation and daily allowances for at the very least the Fiji and Solomon Islands delegations.

There has been an appalling lack of transparency on the part of DFAT on this “assistance”, funded by the Australian taxpayers. At the very least the taxpayers of Australia ought to be told just how many delegations have been given Australian cash assistance to attend, and how much in total has been given.

Over the last forty or fifty years or more Australia has generously funded “study tours” to Australia by serving and emerging leaders as well as state visits and official visits by Prime Ministers, Ministers, and Opposition Leaders and senior MPs. This has been a very useful exercise, as I observed personally when I was the advisor to then opposition leader, the late Sir Iambakey Okuk, and then Prime Minister, Sir Rabbie Namaliu.

This program ought not just continue, it needs to be upgraded and reinvigorated as part of a strategy to rebuild at least some of our influence.

But actually funding Island leaders to attend Glasgow is quite something else. And if it was intended to strengthen our influence, especially on climate change, then it has been a miserable failure.

Take Fiji for a start. The Fiji Times has reported that Australia has helped fund the delegation led by the Fiji prime minister, Frank Bainimarama. The Fiji prime minister has been the strongest critic of Australia when it comes to our policies on climate change and emissions.

While in Glasgow Scott Morrison and the Fiji prime minister signed an agreement under which Australia will provide millions of dollars to enable Fiji be the first participant in the Indo-Pacific Carbon Offsets Scheme. It has been reported that Fiji will gain up to $100 million from Australia as a result.

The Fiji prime minister expressed his “gratitude” by demanding Australia commit to emissions reductions not just by 2050, but by 2030!

And it is also apparent that Australia contributed to the travel and other costs of the Solomon Islands delegation. We know that thanks to a statement in Honiara by the Solomon Islands Opposition which unsurprisingly criticised it, given the growing domestic economic and other troubles the SI is facing. Of all the Pacific Island countries the Solomon Islands has become China’s closest ally in our region, dominating trade, the construction of government projects under Belt and Road as well as China taking 90 per cent of the SI’s legal and illegal log exports!

Does anyone seriously suggest that helping a group of SI ministers and officials travel to Glasgow will help “mitigate” China’s influence in the SI or help rebuild ours?

Let me now look at just how effective China has been in marginalising our influence and building its own relentlessly and often ruthlessly.

Last week I wrote that the Chinese Foreign Minister held a phone hook-up with South Pacific countries that are locked in to “Belt and Road”. The Fiji prime minister was a participant. Australia has never convened a similar meeting.

More recently, President XI Jinping held a phone conversation with the prime minister of Papua New Guinea, James Marape. As far as I can see it has not been reported in the PNG media and ignored by the Australian media.

But the Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a statement on the discussion. Apart from the usual grovelling statement about building a “China-Pacific Island countries community with a shared future”, the two issues the PNG Prime Minister has been talking about and in one case demanding an apology on, could not rate so much as a full sentence each!

Prime Minister Marape recently demanded that developed countries (including Australia) “apologise” for their emission levels! Climate change did not rate as much as a full sentence in the PRC statement!

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And on the other issue, the Covid pandemic, which forced the PNG Prime Minister to abandon plans to travel to Glasgow, President Xi offered the usual platitudes about supporting PNG…..but in less than a full sentence!

And that brings me to the key point I want to use to illustrate our diminished influence and China’s growing influence.

President Xi did not even attend Glasgow (when it appeared Scott Morrison might not attend Pacific leaders demanded that he do so) and China has made no cash commitments to help South Pacific nations mitigate climate change while Australia has now committed at least $700 million to the region as part of a $2 billion overall contribution.

You would expect that Pacific Leaders would be criticising President XI for ignoring Glasgow – and not making the commitments they have demanded of Australia. Silence! Not one Pacific leader has done so!

There can be only one reason for that. China through its strident diplomacy in the region, and more importantly through the conditions it attaches to Belt and Road funding, has bought the silence of our regional neighbours, while undoubtedly encouraged by China, they have turned “attacking Australia” into the Pacific’s new sport!

I rest my case on our diminished influence in our immediate region – and China’s real and growing influence by comparison.

Our whole strategic approach to our region needs urgent and massive overhaul. We need to stop just handing over cash and focus on revitalised people-to-people engagement, encouraging Australian business to invest more in our region (in partnerships with local businesses in particular) and build relationships with churches, women’s groups, sporting organisations and NGOs such as the cause I proudly support, YWAM.

The silence from Pacific leaders when it comes to China effectively thumbing its nose at their so-called number one priority – climate change and its alleged impacts – simply illustrates just much ground we have lost, and frankly are continuing to lose.

It is time to begin turning that around. The task is herculean, and the longer we dither and delay our response the more herculean it will be!

This article first appeared in On Line Opinion and was used with permission.

Jeffrey Wall
Jeffrey Wall CSM CBE is an Australian political consultant and has served as an advisor to the PNG Foreign Minister, Sir Rabbie Namaliu – Prime Minister 1988-1992 and Speaker 1994-1997.

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