China-Australia relations

Unnecessary concerns about China’s role in South Pacific

The island nations are grateful for Beijing’s support yet Australia and New Zealand, among other Western nations, wrongly view the aid as suspicious

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 July, 2018, 9:23pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 July, 2018, 10:40pm

Whatever China does or says in relation to the South Pacific is usually cause for consternation for the governments of Australia and New Zealand. They view the island nations scattered across the region as being in their sphere of influence and undue attention as interference. Plans for a summit between President Xi Jinping and leaders from Pacific island countries with diplomatic ties to Beijing in Papua New Guinea in November has furthered the anxiety. But such an event should be less cause for alarm than reason for self-reflection on better ways to improve regional economies, infrastructure and livelihoods.

Papua New Guinean Prime Minister Peter O’Neill revealed the summit during a speech to Fiji’s parliament earlier this month. The location and timing makes sense, being proposed before the annual meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Port Moresby in November. Such a gathering would improve cooperation and understanding in a region for too long given short shrift by Canberra and Wellington. Only this year, in the face of a noticeable rise in Chinese aid, have the nations significantly increased spending.

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But Australia and New Zealand have also viewed China’s financial largesse, mostly through big infrastructure projects, with suspicion. New Zealand’s acting prime minister, Winston Peters, greeted O’Neill’s announcement by contending that geopolitical tensions were rising in the Pacific. The nation recently released a defence policy paper noting China’s growing influence in the region and criticising its position on human rights and freedom of information. Australia, in defence and foreign policy white papers, has portrayed China as a strategic rival, while its Pacific and international development minister, Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, caused a diplomatic storm earlier this year by labelling Chinese aid projects as “useless” for allegedly saddling nations with debts they could not afford to repay. Tonga, Samoa and Vanuatu owe considerable amounts to Beijing. But China should not be faulted for the deals governments strike with it; they are not being forced into signing contracts. Nor should such aid be dismissed, there being countless examples of how highways, government buildings, airports and ports and sporting stadiums have improved societies.

China has dramatically boosted its investments and aid to the region since 2006 and that has Western nations worried about its intentions. They fret about a military dimension or efforts to gain a strategic foothold, concerns that have been repeatedly denied. Instead, they should be rethinking their aid programmes, diplomacy and outdated policies. They should be working with China to improve lives in the South Pacific.