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Pacific nations don’t have to pick a side – Academic

An Australian academic believes that China’s growing economic rise looks to be the most likely reason why the Solomon Islands has opted to broaden its relationship.

James Laurenceson, director of the Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology Sydney, spoke to the Global Times – known as a mouthpiece for the Chinese Communist Party – over issues that have come up after China and the Solomon Islands signed a security deal.

Australia, New Zealand and the United States showed increased interest in the region after the deal was signed.

The US announced that they would be reopening their Honiara embassy which they had closed in 1993.

The Japanese have also been moved by this. News coming from Japan is that a foreign ministry delegation is going to be established soon in Honiara.

Mr Laurenceson’s perspective on the new deal suggests that if the aid packages from the traditional big brothers of the Pacific dwindle, another bigger brother is ready to help.

“Now, from the perspective of the Solomon Islands, in 2020 the value of goods exported to China was 72 times that to Australia. Fundamentally, that reflects China’s economic rise and the degree of economic complementarity between the two countries,” Mr Laurenceson told the Global Times.

Chinese ambassador to Australia, Xiao Qian, and director of the Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology Sydney, James Laurenceson. Picture: Twitter

“Why would Honiara not have some interest in broadening its relationship with by far its biggest trading partner, particularly given its overwhelming strategic exposure to Australia to date? Again, it’s about expanding options and so the point is that what’s happening here isn’t some left-field development and any imagination in Canberra that somehow such engagement between China and a third country could be prevented or blocked is bizarre.

“Rather than recognizing the way the world has changed, some analysts appear to have fixated on the decades immediately after WW2 and concluded that this represents some immutable international order. It’s a deeply flawed analysis.”

He pointed out that Australia’s reduced action in the Pacific region could perhaps contribute to an interest from Pacific Islands in diversifying their strategic options.

“Similarly, Beijing’s actions will generate a local response that might limit its influence too. For example, if Chinese investment benefits Chinese companies and elites in these countries rather than the broader population, it will generate a domestic backlash,” he said.

“There’s now more resources flowing to Pacific Island countries because of competition among the bigger powers for their attention. There are limits though. If bigger powers actively seek to exploit domestic political divisions to the point that the social fabric starts breaking down, this will be a tragedy.”

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Mr Laurenceson stated that the notion the Pacific Island nations are being dragged into geopolitics is a foregone conclusion. “But so far, my impression is that they are refusing to “pick a side” and for the most part are retaining their own agency and sovereignty. That’s not a bad outcome as the geopolitics heats up.”

He said the ability of bigger powers to influence smaller ones is more limited than commonly thought.

“For this reason I doubt the capacity of the US and its allies, as well as China, to force Pacific Island countries to “pick a side.” The policy adjustments Australia will need to make are the same as those that China will need to if it wants to maximise influence: engage with the population of these countries on their own terms, taking their interests as the starting point rather than seeing them through the frame of being pawns in a grand geopolitical game,” he said.

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