China's plans to expand relationships with Pacific Island states seem to have accelerated in recent weeks. The Solomon Islands and Kiribati terminated their recognition of Taiwan in September, and in October China signed a new "program of action" on economic development and cooperation with these and six other states in the region. What does this mean for Australia's attempt to "step up" its engagement with Pacific island states?
The program of action was signed at the third China-Pacific Island Countries Economic Development and Cooperation Forum on October 21, 2019 in Apia, Samoa. The forum, attended by eight Pacific island states, was designed to spruik China's Belt and Road Initiative, a huge lending facility to promote infrastructure. In the lead-up to the forum, China signed several bilateral agreements with Samoa in areas including education, agriculture and e-commerce, and plans were announced for China to fund a new sports stadium in the Solomon Islands.
The day after the forum, it was reported that China is looking to lease an entire island, Tulagi, from the Solomons, although at the time of writing this is in doubt. Such initiatives in addition to Chinese loans for large infrastructure projects are widely interpreted as designed to obtain a military foothold in a strategically important region.
All this activity will have provoked concerns in the Australian defence and security agencies. China's expanding presence in the region promotes the narrative of the Pacific as a geopolitical focal point for the next great strategic rivalry - that between China and the US. From the perspective of Australia - a US ally but one with a particular history and set of responsibilities in the Pacific - there is a choice to be made: will we continue to securitise our Pacific engagement, or ground it in a more complex set of policy priorities?
Australia's "step up" in the region was announced by former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull in 2016 and continues to frame the government's approach to economic and strategic engagement with Pacific island states. It is difficult not to interpret the step up as an effort to counterbalance China's influence in the region.Through this lens, Australia is effectively "securitising" its approach - framing its engagement in terms of potential threats and thus rationalising a more urgent response which is predicated on the deployment of defence and security resources.
Australia has a clear interest in facilitating stability in the region. But as a wealthy democratic state with international legal human rights obligations, Australia also has a responsibility to contribute to its near neighbours' efforts to improve standards of living and mitigate the effects of environmental degradation. Australia continues to be the biggest donor of development assistance, traditionally in the form of grants underpinned by a humanitarian rationale. Education and health programs are prominent in Australia's Pacific engagement.
Crucially, though, Australia is moving to emphasise loans rather than grants, with the establishment of a $2 billion Infrastructure Financing Facility. Moreover, further Defence and Home Affairs initiatives have been developed under Scott Morrison, including ADF training programs and an annual Joint Heads of Pacific Security Forces event hosted by Australia.
Australia should be cautious about the ramifications of seeing China's presence in the region in reductionist or binary terms with reference to geopolitical competition.Australia has a responsibility to provide assistance to the Pacific island states, particularly in terms of ensuring they do not enter profoundly difficult lending arrangements. A recent report from the Lowy Institute found that China is not employing deliberate 'debt trap' diplomacy, but that there are risks to Pacific island states in navigating the current environment.
At this juncture, the government should be careful to take a comprehensive approach and, crucially, to be seen as doing so. Scott Morrison's participation in the Pacific Islands Forum in August was criticised by several leaders, including Fiji's Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, for refusing to commit Australia to more strident policies to mitigate climate change (and in particular, for refusing to commit to a reduction in Australia's dependence on coal). Instead he emphasised Australia's significant financial assistance to states in the region. This was seen by some as condescending.
There are opportunities for Australia to take a nuanced multilateral approach. The Pacific and International Development Minister Alex Hawke has suggested Australia partner with China on infrastructure projects or pursue trilateral partnerships such as investments with New Zealand and the EU in renewable energy in Tonga.
This doesn't mean we shouldn't think in strategic terms. Reports that the Solomon Islands Port Authority and four other major Pacific ports have become external associate members of peak industry group Ports Australia foreshadow the creation of dialogue channels and the facilitation of maritime sector ties across the region. But there is room for better inter-agency coordination and complex policy design and implementation.
The government must also take seriously the value of expert advice, particularly from Pacific island scholars. As Katerina Teaiwa from the ANU has argued, the citizens of Pacific island states are not necessarily pursuing a cash grab or playing Australia and China off against each other - many recall the region involuntarily playing host to the military theatre of World War II. Rather, this very complex set of issues requires regional expertise and indigenous knowledge. Teaiwa also points out that Australia has much work to do in developing greater "Pacific literacy" and could support other states who are engaged in the region - such as the US, Japan and France - to do the same.
Australia would do well to engage in the Pacific region in a manner that is not fixated on China's strategic presence and a perceived competition for loyalty of Pacific island states. Rather, a comprehensive approach employing greater inter-agency coordination would remain cognisant of Australia's responsibilities in the region, and consider how we can work with other partners - the US, NZ, Japan and yes, China - to improve the prospects for those living in Pacific island states.
- Dr Avery Poole is an honorary senior lecturer in the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University.