Australia’s closest neighbours are offering something more than just pristine beaches and turquoise oceans.
They’re also opening their doors to foreign investment.
Amid growing concerns of Chinese influence, this is the wake-up call that Australia needs.
And it’s a message that is finally being heard by our government. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop argued recently that Pacific nations shouldn’t be left in a position where they only have to turn to for capital:
‘We must step up our engagement in the Pacific, north and south. This is our part of the world. This is our neighbourhood. We have a responsibility to be deeply engaged with the nations of the Pacific.
‘We also recognise that there are growing economies, countries that will become even more important to us in the years ahead. In particular…the ten nations of South-East Asia, the ASEAN nation.’
But, it’s a tricky balance for Australia. On the one hand, curbing foreign influence in Australia is an issue of growing importance. On the other, the government is looking to make sure its own influence on our Pacific neighbours isn’t reduced.
So it makes sense that Vanuatu’s Prime Minister Charlot Salwai got the same treatment as Solomon Island’s Prime Minister, Rick Houenipwela did on his visit…the big welcome to Parliament House, ceremony and all.
But it wasn’t all pomp. Business is also underway. Mr Houenipwela signed a deal with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull for a 4,000 kilometre, high-speed telecommunications cable between Sydney and the capital of the Solomon Islands, Honiara.
Australia locks China out of Soloman Islands subsea cable deal
Although Australian tax payers will foot most of the bill, it seems a reasonable price to pay to curb China’s growing control of the Pacific. The money, which will come from Australia’s foreign aid budget, was only allocated after Australia’s intelligence agencies heard talk of Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei having an in-principle deal with the Solomon Islands.
It seems likely that Mr Salwai will propose a similar project to our PM, which Aussies will also have to chip in for.
Australia is significantly closer to both countries than China, making these projects much simpler to run from our coast. As well as bringing us closer to our neighbours, they give Canberra the chance to ward off seemingly attractive offers from Beijing.
China has been accused in the past of leaving small Pacific countries swamped in debt, after paying for their massive infrastructure projects.
Last week, China’s ambassador to Australia, Cheng Jingye told a business forum in Parliament House that ‘China follows a development path that is completely different from that of traditional major powers’.
‘China never interferes in the internal affairs of other countries,’ he said.
But the Turnbull government should remain sceptical — regardless of reports of a strong and robust relationship with Beijing.
China has already snapped up the ABC’s abandoned broadcast frequencies in the Pacific after debilitating budget cuts to the broadcaster.
China’s expansion of influence in the Pacific is an issue that won’t go away for the Australian government. Competing for diplomatic territory against the world’s second-largest economy, and its aggressive state-driven expansionist polices, is anything but easy.
But if the government doesn’t respond, we will feel the consequences. An uncontested China could become a bully playing rule-maker.
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