The economic and fiscal impacts of our regional neighbours committing to loans from China under the Belt and Road initiative have been written about here and commented on widely.
Despite the economic downturn, and fiscal problems, caused by the Covid-19 pandemic the pace of Belt and Road and other PRC loan funding activities seem not have diminished, and most certainly not in Papua New Guinea.
Because Belt and Road and other loan funding from PRC banks and tied to work being undertaken solely by PRC construction companies totally lack transparency it is difficult to assess accurately just how much our regional neighbours exactly owe. The terms of the multiple loans, guaranteed by national governments, are largely unknown.
But what is increasingly “known” is the diplomatic impact of China’s effective program to link funding for infrastructure, communications and other services, to support for China at international an d regional forums.
In many ways this “impact” ought to be of far more immediate concern to the Australian Government and the Australian community.
The latest evidence of just how effective China has been in rounding up our regional neighbours to support it, often in opposition to the stance of Australia and New Zealand, as well as the United States and Japan, has emerged from the latest “interactive dialogue” emerging from the United Nations Human Rights Council.
One of the issues discussed concerned China’s oppression of any form of dissent, and free speech, in Hong Kong. It was alleged that China was continuing to violate its international legal obligations as a result of the use of national security laws to curtail freedom of expression and legitimate political debate.
One would have thought it would be an “open and shut” case!
But no fewer than 68 nations sided with China to reject the resolution.
They included the usual suspects – such as Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Syria. All paragons of virtue – not!
This year they were joined by Tonga, Solomon Islands, Kiribati and Papua New Guinea!
So these five essentially democratic and Christian nations in our region voted contrary to their own stated national constitutions and democratic processes to support the oppression of the people of Hong Kong!
Papua New Guinea voted the same way in support of China last year. This year three of our regional neighbours joined in.
Now there can really be two reasons why China has been so successful in rounding up Christian democracies in the Pacific to support it on the international stage.
The first reason may well be that China has been far more effective than Australia, and New Zealand, and the United States and Japan, in lobbying countries that are essentially democratic, and belong to the Commonwealth of Nations, (and in the case of PNG and the Solomon Islands nations where the Queen is head of state).
If that is true then Foreign Minister Payne should be asking our diplomatic representatives in these countries just how much lobbying they undertook on what ought to be a no brainer when it comes to supporting freedom and opposing cruel oppression. Whatever they did, China clearly did much better.
And the same question needs to be put to Australia’s representatives at the United Nations and its human rights entity.
But there is a second reason and it is one I find far more worrying.
Recently the PNG Foreign Minister, Soroi Eoe, met with the PRC foreign minister, Wang Yi, in China on his first overseas visit since he was appointed foreign minister in the Marape Government.
Apart from the usual pleasantries the focus of the meeting was a commitment by China to “strengthen strategic alignment and deepen the joint building of the Belt and Road initiative”.
In his response to the comments by the PRC Foreign Minister said this:
PNG recognises that political stability is an important cornerstone of economic development and hopes to share governance experience with China and learn from China’s development experience.
Governance experience?? Like crushing minorities, press freedom, and any form of dissent?
The question really is why would the Foreign Minister of a democratic country where dissent, press freedom and human rights are enshrined in the national constitution and upheld by democratic elections since 1975 talk about learning from China’s “governance experience”?
To me the answer is simple, and it is no coincidence that the Solomon Islands, Tonga and Kiribati, have lined up beside the PNG Government backing China when it comes to human rights and basic freedom issues.
Each of these countries has signed up to the Belt and Road initiative. Each has received tied loans from China in areas such as infrastructure, communications, education, agriculture, and health.
The Solomon Islands is the latest to sign up to Belt and Road but already the impact is being felt in the small but strategically important nation to our north.
Tonga is heavily in debt to China under the initiative, and Papua New Guinea so far this year has committed, through the national government and state owned corporations to at last K5 billion in tied loans – at a time when the fiscal position is dire.
There is not the slightest doubt that the pro-China positions adopted by our regional neighbours at United Nations and other multi-lateral institutions can be directly linked to the obligations they have, or are told they have, under the Belt and Road initiative in particular.
This is not the first time Papua New Guinea has voted for China, and against Australia. Papua New Guinea pursues an independent foreign policy but it has increasingly been drawn into the China influence as has Tonga, Kiribati and the Solomon Islands.
This reality raises important strategic national interest questions for Australia, and our allies.
It is overwhelmingly clear that programs such as Step Up are simply not having the desired impact!
China’s diplomatic influence in our immediate region is not being contained.
The generous annual development assistance support we provide the nations of the region is not making a difference.
Belt and Road and a myriad of other tied loan arrangements continues to be very effective.
If the UN Human Rights vote tells us one thing it is surely this – we are going to have to do a lot more to regain the standing we once had in our region than we are currently doing!
Australia has been more generous than any other country in supporting our regional neighbours when it comes to testing, vaccines and the provision of other support, including cash. The beneficial impact of that clearly had no impact at the UN Human Rights Commission recently!
These are challenging times for our region and not just because of the pandemic. Our neighbours are almost without exception enduring enormous economic, fiscal and social challenges.
This reality ought to provide a great opportunity for Australia to strengthen our standing in our region. Sadly, the evidence available so far indicates it is an opportunity we are simply not adequately grasping!
This article first appeared in On Line Opinion and was used with permission.
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.