On November 7th 2018, Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, announced a new foreign policy plan that sets the South Pacific Region at the center of its focus. A grand total of $2 billion dollars (AUD) has been offered in both aid and loans to Pacific Nations such as the Marshall Islands, French Polynesia, and the Cook Islands. However, the new policy has intensified the tensions between Australia and China, as China is also vying to increase its influence in the South Pacific Region.
At first sight, the strategy for the Pacific Nations deployed by Australia seems to be an act of good faith that is aimed at building a stronger relationship between the continent and its nearby countries. Scott Morrison even stated in his speech, “I want to set right how we engage with our Pacific family – our Vuvale, our Whanau. I will not be taking our Pacific family for granted.” Indeed, there is no doubt that this monetary injection will have a positive effect on the Pacific Nations as the money is being invested in infrastructure projects: telecommunication, energy, and transportation. That being said, due to the context in which these policies are being made, there is a certain sense of skepticism surrounding Australia’s true motivations.
The unveiling of Australia’s foreign policy plan happened just a few days before the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit has taken place in Papua New Guinea. Where China plans to get several key Pacific Nations to accept its One Road, One Belt Initiative. The initiative is China’s strategy to create a global economic link, which it will dominate, by investing in infrastructure and building new trade ports in various countries. Already, countries like Vanuatu, the Cook Islands, and Niue have made indications that they will sign this agreement with China. Australia has a defensive attitude towards China’s move into the South Pacific and has even named it the biggest threat to Australia’s national security. As such, Australia’s new foreign policy plan is a push back on China’s accumulation of influence.
Australia and China are not the only countries that recognize the strategic importance of the Pacific region. New Zealand, although a country of proportionately smaller size, is also trying to exert its cultural influence in that area. It has already introduced several diplomatic projects such as sponsorships that offer students from the Pacific Nations education opportunities in New Zealand. New Zealand has also been trying to strengthen its relationship by appealing to the shared similarities between indigenous Maori culture and that of the Pacific Nations.
Although China, Australia, and New Zealand are not using violence to gain dominance, their approach is still creating an instability in the South Pacific region. This is particularly evident in a way that Australia and China have used their geographical locations as a proxy for the Pacific Nations. In these circumstances, we have to consider how “soft power” will affect the sovereignty of these Pacific nations as bigger states will use financial incentives to manipulate and influence them. Although “soft power” has emerged as a better alternative to using military force, we should be critical about the motivations and consequences that it is capable of causing.