The Turnbull government is urging Britain and other Commonwealth nations to step up their engagement in the Pacific amid concerns about the growing influence of China, calling for a shift in thinking on billions of dollars in aid funding.
The new message highlights Britain’s exit from the European Union to make the case for a stronger Commonwealth presence in the Pacific Islands based on “shared beliefs in freedom” and a commitment to the rule of law.
The call comes after the construction of a mammoth port in Vanuatu fuelled concerns about China’s ability to extend its naval power in the region, triggering a denial from the Vanuatu government that it would support any such military plans.
International Development Minister Concetta Fierravanti-Wells will point to the United Kingdom’s $23 billion foreign aid budget as a reminder of the need for British support for Pacific nations and other Commonwealth members at a time of big shifts in global affairs.
The minister’s remarks to a Commonwealth summit in London on Monday will come days before Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull arrives in the city for talks with British counterpart Theresa May and others at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, which ends on Friday.
Senator Fierravanti-Wells will suggest that Brexit should lead to “new partnerships” between Australia and the UK in the Pacific with an emphasis on useful infrastructure, adding
“Australia and the UK share so much when it comes to our perspective on the importance of overseas development in making the world a better place,” Senator Fierravanti-Wells will tell the Commonwealth forum.
“Particularly when it comes to our approach to development, our shared beliefs in freedom, democracy and the international rules-based order bind us together towards a common central goal of a stable, secure and prosperous world.
“These virtues are the bedrock upon which our two nations were built.”
Senator Fierravanti-Wells sparked controversy in January by warning that a huge flow of Chinese aid money was being used to build “roads to nowhere” and buy influence in the Pacific Islands, a remark that gained support from analysts but a rebuke from Chinese officials.
Three months after those remarks, the Fairfax Media revelations about the Vanuatu port have intensified the debate over Chinese projects and the reach of the Chinese navy far into the Pacific.
China’s ability to extend naval power into the Pacific not only counters the US but also challenges Commonwealth members including the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
The other Commonwealth members in the Pacific are Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, the Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.
While the minister’s speech to the Commonwealth aid summit does not mention China, it emphasises greater UK involvement in the Pacific region after Brexit.
“Such are the opportunities for our two countries that leaders on both sides are currently looking at our trading relationship and seizing on new opportunities for free trade agreements,” she will say.
“We also have the opportunity for new partnerships in the Indo-Pacific as Britain exits the EU bloc. It will naturally be looking for new partners and markets.”
Australia directs about $1.2 billion of its $3.9 billion overseas aid budget to Commonwealth nations.
The UK is the third-largest aid donor after the US and Germany with $US17.9 billion spent last year, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, but much of its aid spending in the Pacific is done through the European Union.
The UK government estimates it accounts for around 15 per cent of EU development funding to the Pacific, or about £13 million, raising the question of how this will change after Brexit.
In a key message, Senator Fierravanti-Wells argues for a shift in thinking on the UK’s support for the the Private Infrastructure Development Group, a flagship aid project that encourages private companies to match public aid money. The UK is the lead donor and the PIDG claims to have used this support to mobilise $31 billion in private investment since 2002.
“With rising levels of influence in the Indo-Pacific, the UK’s overseas development assistance priorities may be better utilised in a different direction,” Senator Fierravanti-Wells will say, according to a draft of her speech.
“The UK’s commitment to the Private Infrastructure Development Group has largely been directed towards projects in Africa, South and South-East Asia. We think the time is now right to direct more of those funds to a potential PIDG Pacific window.”