PETER HARTCHER | Sydney Morning Herald | Extract
SYDNEY - To most Australians, the South Pacific looks like a holiday opportunity or a blank space on the map. It takes a crisis for Australia to pay serious attention to the Pacific islands.
Like when the Japanese occupied several to prepare for the full-scale invasion of Australia in World War II.
Or when the Solomon Islands became a failed state and turned to Australia in desperation in 2003, leading to the 14-year, multibillion-dollar RAMSI mission. Or when civil war broke out on Bougainville and Australia and New Zealand were asked to oversee the peace process from 1997.
All these crises ended well and Australia's performance ultimately was outstanding in each case. But in each case, Australia was complacent or distracted until events forced it to act. Some vigilance would have reduced the cost and consequences.
So it's time for Australia to pay serious attention. Crisis has again broken out in the Pacific islands, and this is one that directly threatens Australia's future.
Because while most Australians see the region's main value as a holiday destination, the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party sees Australia taking a holiday from history.
To China's President, Xi Jinping, that is an opportunity to establish dominance in the Pacific as part of the "great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation". Beijing is using aid, infrastructure and other inducements to build influence over the small, poor nations that make up the region.
Just as China has been setting up naval bases in Africa and along the edge of the Indian Ocean, it's a matter of time before it does the same in the Pacific. It's interested in building ports in Papua New Guinea, for instance, which could be used by its military. And there were rumours this year of Chinese interest in building a military facility in the Pacific island state of Vanuatu.
"It's been an unspoken objective of Australian defence and foreign policy for 70 years to ensure that no other power could project force against Australia from the South Pacific," says the head of the Australian National University's National Security College, Rory Medcalf, ever since the Japanese were driven out in World War II.
If China were to build a military base among the Pacific islands, it would be a "pretty significant failure" of that policy, he points out. The People's Liberation Army would be in a position to threaten and coerce Australia.
"It is essential to the welfare of the whole country," wrote the American naval strategist, Alfred Thayer Mahan, that "the enemy must be kept not only out of our ports, but far away from our coasts." This is as sensible today as it was when he wrote it in 1890.
Is China the enemy? It's the major trading partner of Australia and another 120 of the countries in the world, but it's also a strategic competitor of the United States and its allies. We know it's determined to build power. We know it's willing to walk over international law to do so, as it did in the South China Sea. And we know it's willing to use its power to coerce other countries.
We don't know its ultimate objectives and it's possible that Beijing itself isn't yet sure. So are we feeling lucky about what the next decade, the next century, might bring?