NOOSA - When Australia’s Minister for International Development and the Pacific Concetta Fierravanti-Wells this week said China was constructing "useless buildings" in the Pacific, she foolishly slapped both at China and our regional neighbours.
And when she added later that "we just don't want to build a road that doesn't go anywhere" to add to allegations of 'useless' Chinese infrastructure, she doubled down on the damage she'd caused.
The senator was parroting recent mouth-offs at Beijing by Australian political figures as senior as prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and foreign minister Julie Bishop, so presumably felt she was on firm ground.
China reacted of course, yesterday making a formal diplomatic complaint and saying Fierravanti-Wells had spoken “irresponsibly and falsely”.
So what’s going on here?
Well, Australia is beginning to panic about Chinese incursion into the Pacific region and seems to think it’s a smart move to attack China's practice of funding projects by funnelling concessional loans to win the support of regional leaders. (According to the Lowy Institute, China has contributed more than $2.3 billion in aid to the Pacific since 2006.)
How verbal assaults reinstate Australia's Pacific mojo is a secret beholden only to the Australian government.
Anyway, when I saw what the senator said, I turned to Twitter: “Now junior & incapable Australian ministers are having a poke at China. No substitute for our strategic failure to establish fair dinkum partnerships with PNG & Pacific nations (& real dumb politics too).”
I want to expand on this brief outburst of irritation.
While, in official pronouncements, Australia boasts repeatedly of its “special relationship” with Papua New Guinea, the truth is that we have fallen well short of being a true strategic partner. Nor are we seen as an honest broker. We're more like a shady wheeler and dealer.
In fact, there is much in Australia's attitude to PNG that has a colonial appearance.
Just last year, then PNG opposition leader Don Polye rebuked Turnbull, saying “we’re no longer your colony; we must be treated with respect,” words that would have been unnecessary were Australia conducting the relationship in a competent manner.
Over the last 20 years, Australia’s relationship with PNG has drifted from being relatively stable and based on historical ties to a looser, opportunistic money-based formulation.
The “shared vision” that Julie Bishop spoke of as shadow foreign minister never developed. Instead, Australia’s inducements to PNG to accept unwanted refugees became enacted an attitude that ‘if we pay PNG enough, they’ll do what we want’.
It seems Australia, perceiving PNG as a place to which we could delegate the political issue of boat arrivals, and PNG, seeing us a place that would reward it handsomely for the privilege, managed to give effect to an opportunism that has crowded out more important strategic considerations and a more mature and cohesive partnership.
Between the escalation of China’s influence in our region and the shallow, money-based association we have nurtured with PNG, Australia is already well advanced in creating a major strategic problem for itself.
Instead of benefiting from a mature relationship we never built, we now respond to the expansion of Chinese influence in our backyard with inflammatory rhetoric.
We intemperately hit out at China (our biggest export market) and, by implication, accuse our Pacific neighbours of being unable to effectively conduct their own relationships, impugning their sovereignty.
So where does this get us?
As Australia struggles to come to terms with a newly forceful China, a bumbling USA and an increasingly assertive Pacific, surely the task of our government is to develop a credible approach based on the reality of this changed strategic environment.
Instead we keep trying to replay past positions and postures, throwing in a few insults for good measure.
Even though the climate does not look not propitious, Australia must now try to develop a new, mature partnership with PNG and the Pacific; one based on mutual respect not some phony notion that we command this part of the world.
And we need to discard this recent habit of ministers junior and senior thinking it’s a good idea to slag off at our neighbours as a substitute for developing a strategic template that will serve us for the next era – an era of a dominant China and a bewildered and befuddled USA.