NOOSA – When Australia’s prime minister Scott Morrison makes his way from the RAAF aircraft to his accommodation in Port Moresby next week, he’s bound to notice the visual tributes (some of them lurid) to China.
But at least he’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that, in his short period in office so far, he’s taken three big steps to address China’s well-established strategy to extend its influence into Papua New Guinea and the Pacific.
Last week he got a deal with the PNG government to establish a joint naval base on Manus; he currently has ministers in China for talks after a two year ‘freeze’; and yesterday he made a major announcement about what he termed Australia’s Pacific ‘family’ and threw in $3 billion worth of gifts as a sweetener.
To wit, five new diplomatic posts, a $2 billion fund to support infrastructure projects in the Pacific, offering both grants and loans, and a $1 billion export financing facility “to support investments in the region which have a broad national benefit for Australia”.
The announcement, tellingly made before troops at a military base in north Queensland, was designed to balance China's increasing influence in the region
The infrastructure fund (echoing an initiative announced earlier by Australia's
opposition Labor Party) was the main plank of what Morrison referred to
as Australia’s ‘step up’ in the region.
This will also include the establishment of new diplomatic outposts in Palau, the Marshall Islands, French Polynesia, Niue and the Cook Islands. (The last two not previously considered significant strategic assets but indicating that no stone was left unturned.)
“Australia cannot take its influence in the Southwest Pacific for granted; and sadly I think too often we have,” Morrison said in a speech at Lavarack Army base in Townsville.
“This is our patch; this is our part of the world,” he said. “This is where we have special responsibilities - always have, always will. We have their back and they have ours.”
As a statement, it was long overdue, made a heroic claim to mutuality and neglected the one issue that most Pacific islands nations want to hear about – action on climate change, where Australia’s track record has been, and remains, poor and even retrograde.
As ‘Pacific islandist’ Nick Howlett (@specificisland) observed on Twitter: “A 'Pacific reset' is in now in play on both sides of the Tasman, driven by fear of Chinese power.
“This is self-interest: no change in policy has been announced by New Zealand or Australia on what the Pacific region has itself identified as its ‘greatest threat’, climate change.”
Katherine Murphy, political editor of Guardian Australia, wrote, “Australia has been executing a strategic pivot to the Pacific both under Malcolm Turnbull and Morrison to try and hold out a soft power offensive by China in the region, executed predominately through loans and infrastructure projects delivered to the island nations.”
Under the Morrison plan, timed to be announced on the eve of next week’s APEC summit in Port Moresby, there are also security commitments for the Pacific including an Australian defence force mobile training team, more navy deployments, annual meetings between defence, police and border security commanders and the creation of a Pacific faculty at the Australian Institute of Police Management.
“Australia has an abiding interest in a southwest Pacific that is secure strategically, stable economically and sovereign politically,” Morrison said. “This is not just our region, or our neighbourhood. It’s our home.”
A home under threat - and not just from China.
Morrison's failure to mention climate change and rising sea levels already gnawing at the islands of the Pacific spoke louder than any of his words about 'family'.