Australia should be more concerned about China’s efforts to replace it as the regional authority for its nearest neighbours, according to a prominent Pacific adviser.
The Chinese influence that initially crept into Papua New Guinean politics has also spread further across Melanesia into the Solomon Islands in the space of little more than two years.
But Australia’s Jeff Wall, an advisor to a former Papua New Guinean Prime Minister, said in his latest Pacific Advocate column, the difference was after the Solomon Islands government switched historical allegiances abruptly from Taipei to Beijing.
“If you were to believe a number of former (Australian) prime ministers and a handful of so-called foreign policy experts, you would hold the view that China’s growing influence in our region is relatively benign,” he wrote.
But it was only September 2019 when Honiara formally recognised the People’s Republic of China under its ‘One China’ policy while shutting down all diplomatic relations with Taiwan, that the battle lines were drawn.
China has increased its number of relationships in recent years to eight Pacific island nations.
“Australia had no real capacity to influence that decision (of Solomon Islands), of course, but where we failed is that we did not step up, and broaden, our engagement beyond a relatively bland $150 million a year on numerous projects.”
China has since secured control of key construction, forestry, fisheries and agricultural export sectors except in Malaita, whose provincial government refuses to bend for Beijing’s interests.
Figures suggest 90 per cent of the country’s logging and more than half of overall exports land in China.
“That has just about all happened in two years,” Mr Wall said.
“The Solomon Islands construction sector has effectively collapsed, with every government contract of any value going to Chinese construction companies, principally under the belt and road agenda.”
Those dealings extend to five major construction projects for the 2023 Pacific Games amid protests from the local building sector that have been ignored.
In addition to the athletics stadium and accommodation for the athletes, China is developing a new international airport and undertaking “just about all other infrastructure work” for the government.
Mr Wall feels the Australian government has wasted billions of dollars of good will that the Solomon Islands are disregarding in favour of the firm Chinese presence on the ground.
“Australia should have also moved to protect the interests in the Solomon Islands of the Australian investors and businesses, especially in the mining sector,” he said.
The mining project in the Isabel province was once mined by an Australian company before the Solomon Islands government surrendered its licence to a Chinese rival.
That comes on the back of Australia paying out nearly $A3 billion ($US 2.2 billion) to safeguard tricky relations between Bougainville, which belongs to PNG but has been fighting for independence, and the Solomon Islands after ethnic tensions between their narrow strait flared and a breakdown of law and order erupted following the shutdown of a copper mine in 2002.
The Solomon Islands effectively called on Australia to lead the regional assistance mission in what proved to be a 14-year exercise.
This has now extended to the latest civil unrest on the streets of Honiara where the national government has welcomed additional police help from the Australian government, as well as support from other nations.
China meanwhile has distanced itself from the latest violence, but has also condemned the severe damage and property losses to Chinese businesses in Honiara’s Chinatown.
Its influence has extended to promising to safeguard the safety and legitimate rights and interests of Chinese citizens and institutions.
This contrasts with one Australian mining company, which invested $A50 million ($US 37 million) in the country just before the Solomon Islands broke ties with Taiwan in favour of China.
The switch cost Axiom Mining and its 8000 Australian shareholders dearly after the Government cancelled its licence to mine nickel, a commodity that was in demand in China.
“Within a matter of months, the Solomon Islands mining minister transferred key parts of the Isabel Mining licence area to the Chinese firm, Bintan Mining – a company which caused a major oil spill off the Solomon Islands earlier that year,” Mr Wall said.
Mr Wall also said that a request from the Australian government for Axiom, which is now a delisted Australian company, to be treated “fairly in accordance with Solomon Islands law” fell on deaf ears.
Read Jeff Walls commentary in full HERE.