China-Australia relations

How Australia should respond to China’s growing role in the Pacific

Matthew Abbey says that for an Australian minister to lash out at China’s increasing development work in the Pacific is counterproductive, because Beijing is fulfilling a need Canberra cannot, and the two countries would do better to cooperate

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 January, 2018, 11:09am
UPDATED : Thursday, 18 January, 2018, 9:06am

In a blow to already tense relations, an Australian government minister attacked China over its Pacific aid programmes. The accusations reflect what Australia has thought but feared to become vocal about: China is trying to take control of the Pacific.

International Development Minister Concetta Fierravanti-Wells last week labelled the aid “roads to nowhere” and “useless buildings”. Although Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop tried to temper the situation, the damage has been done.

Beijing unsurprisingly lodged a formal complaint, as China places heavy importance on its development programme as part of its rising influence around the world. Instead of challenging China, however, Australia should wake up to the geopolitical shifts or risk losing diplomatic clout throughout the Pacific.

The accuracy of the accusations is not necessarily important. Australia has traditionally viewed the Pacific as its neighbourhood, but it has failed to recognise its aid is no longer meeting regional demand.

Recently, aid cuts worth US$11 billion have diminished the ability of Australia to influence the Pacific. In response, several Pacific nations turned to China. According to the Lowy Institute, China has provided the region with US$2.3 billion worth of aid since 2006. Ultimately, Chinese foreign policy aims to extend leverage over regional politics.

It is only natural for partners to look elsewhere when development programmes dry up. Even if Chinese development programmes leave Pacific nations with high debt, the short-term positive impacts might be viewed as more important.

Australia must get used to a new order with China as a major player

Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi said the minister’s comments could destroy existing relations between Australia and Pacific nations. Tuilaepa further remarked that China was in a better position to aid Samoa than Australia.

Although agreeing with the assessment of Chinese aid offered by Fierravanti-Wells, Fijian opposition leader Sitiveni Rabuka stated that because Australia withheld aid during periods of political instability, China successfully exploited the vacuum. A Vanuatuan newspaper also mocked Australian development programmes in the country.

Why Australia’s cure for Chines influence is worse than the disease

If Pacific nations start criticising Chinese development programmes, Australia might have the legitimacy to join in the chorus. However, Australia is acting alone in questioning the aid, which makes the accusations irresponsible.

Australian policy in the Pacific had been largely unrivalled. The United States and Europe looked away for decades, allowing Australia to garner influence throughout the region without being challenged. The US only sought to increase influence in the region recently as a response to security concerns from China. Meanwhile, Australian policy towards the Pacific remains outdated.

Further, the accusations represent growing unrest in Canberra over Chinese foreign policy. The spat over development programmes in the Pacific comes amid heightened tensions between Australia and China on multiple fronts. Last month, Australia passed new laws, aimed at China, that challenge foreign influence and espionage in domestic politics. Former Australian Senator Sam Dastyari had been given cash by Beijing and subsequently called upon Australia to respect China’s position on the South China Sea.

Australia’s balancing act between US and China will prove one of its greatest challenges

Although Australia is still the largest aid donor to the Pacific, geopolitics are changing fast. Despite the growing tension, Australia and China have aligned interests in the Pacific. Indeed, they have partnered in development programmes before. Questioning Chinese motives in the region is necessary, particularly considering allegations of unfavourable terms with Pacific leaders. But blunt criticism of Chinese development projects is no solution.

Why Australia needs a smarter China policy

If Australia wants to shape development outcomes in the region, it needs to enhance development cooperation with China and forgo the recklessness. Another solution would be revamping its aid budget to fill the void it left years ago. Given the Chinese foothold in many Pacific nations, there is a need to act quickly. Otherwise, Australia will end up on a road to nowhere.

Matthew Abbey is a freelance journalist and political commentator based in Bangkok