PORT MORESBY - China’s presence in Papua New Guinea and the Pacific Islands is an unsettling prospect for traditional powers like Australia.
China’s manoeuvre is viewed as a potential threat predicated on its activities elsewhere – in the South China Sea where it has militarised disputed coral atolls and in the Indian Ocean where it has used debt diplomacy to its strategic advantage.
So how should Australia – the predominant Western power in the Pacific - respond?
Well first it needs a genuinely inclusive campaign specifically targeting the Pacific audience. A renewed focus should engage with Pacific citizens. Because let’s be clear, Pacific islanders are equally anxious about the increasing presence of China in their countries.
The diplomatic challenge for Australia is to harness a critical mass of informed people in the Pacific to manage potentially disruptive effects of China’s activities.
Australia and New Zealand have an advantage in responding to the threat. Both countries have a long association with the Pacific, beginning with their roles as colonial powers and their facilitation of self-government processes.
Australia and New Zealand were founding members of the regional architecture of what is now called the Pacific Islands Forum.
Western powers can only be effective in dealing with the effects of China’s influence if they are attentive to the Pacific island’s response to China’s activities in the region. For example, and of great importance, Australia has squandered opportunities to enhance its solidarity with Pacific communities on climate change.
Australia has not been forthcoming in this area of global and regional concern. This is a credibility test that raises doubts on whether Australia is truly genuine in its interactions with the region.
Pacific islanders feel they need to be able to rely on Australia’s track record as a Pacific partner in dealing with any perceived threat in the region.
Australian foreign policy officials and its media must be conscious of their use of condescending rhetoric.
Australia conveys a patronising image of the Pacific Islands when citing the China threat. Labelling the Pacific Islands as “our patch” or our “sphere of influence” is an unproductive formulation.
It casts Pacific islanders as insignificant pawns in great power politics. This is not the kind of rallying call to mobilise a collective effort in managing the possibly adverse effects of a potential belligerent power.
The Pacific is comprised of predominantly sovereign independent states which are the rightful custodians of their ‘backyard’ – the vast Pacific Ocean.
Australia will not win friends in the Pacific Islands if the messages it communicates infer it is going alone on the China threat. The rhetoric used by commentators and the media in Australia have an unfortunate and alienating effect on Pacific leaders and their people.
Pacific leaders carefully guard the sovereignty of their countries. The Chinese know this and deal directly with political elites as they seek to foster the trust and confidence of Pacific leaders.
Any rhetoric that is condescending will push Pacific political elites towards China – and this is now the case.
China’s emphasis on South-South cooperation invokes a sense of affinity with the countries of the Pacific in partnership and joint development. And the political and bureaucratic elites of these states are ready to jump on the Chinese bandwagon.
Treating Pacific islanders as long-term partners gains the confidence of peoples who are genuinely interested in relationships beyond China. This is the much-needed support that Australia can foster in managing the Chinese presence in the Pacific.
Citizens of these states are concerned about threats to their business, their environment and the refinancing of debt undertaken in their name.
Furthermore, Australia and other Western powers can counter the China threat by communicating the trustworthiness of Australian aid. Of all the grandiose infrastructure projects enabled through Chinese loans, many are of questionable quality – even unnecessary to the long-term development of communities.
From uneconomical sporting stadiums to unnecessary high-rise buildings, China’s infrastructure aid does not correlate to the developmental needs of the Pacific. In the relatively short time that China has been involved in Pacific infrastructure , communities already recognise the sometimes doubtful worth of their infrastructure assistance programs.
It seems the same rigour of peer review process and scrutiny of aid programs is not applied to China.
In its attempts to bring some semblance of transparency and performance-oriented conditions for Chinese aid in the region, Australia has tried unsuccessfully to persuade China to sign up to the ‘Cairns Compact’, to bring new determination and an invigorated commitment to lift the economic and development performance of the region.
Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop’s recent comments that Australia is poised to compete with China in development aid is timely. In dealing with China’s ‘debt-book’ diplomacy, Australia must have the support of Pacific island leaders, civil society and informed Pacific citizens.
Pacific citizens should be made to see that it is in their interest to avert the adverse effects of the debt trap. This will entail demanding that the Pacific Islands Forum seek that China conforms to best practice reporting of aid to the region, lest it be viewed as an externally driven neo-colonial exercise.
On the other hand, Australian infrastructure, though not perfect, has a proven record of longevity and high standards.
For instance, Papua New Guineans see the enduring pre-Independence infrastructure as an example of Australian support and as a testament to competitive Australian architectural standards and reliability.
Australia ought to be communicating this message of the reliability and the high standards in the delivery of its assistance to Pacific states.
United States secretary of state Mike Pompeo hinted at this same logic recently when he said, “With American companies, citizens around the world know that what you see is what you get: honest contracts, honest terms, and no need for off-the-books mischief”.
Pacific islanders are astute, and will weigh the outcomes of their engagement with development partners in terms of both the sustainable benefits and the integrity of the development assistance.
An informed Pacific citizen is a powerful ally if the ‘debt-book’ diplomacy of China is to be counteracted.
Patrick Kaiku is a teaching fellow in the political science department at the University of Papua New Guinea