Australia Takes On Greater Regional Responsibilities As China’s Economic Expansion Threatens Pacific Sovereignty

On June 18, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop announced that Australia will challenge China’s infrastructure development projects in the Pacific Islands, reports Sydney Morning Herald. The Australian Government’s commitment to providing alternative offers is to ensure that China’s economic influence in the Pacific do not undermine the sovereignty of the small nations, as well as maintaining regional security. According to Bishop, China is using “debt-for-equity swap” strategy to ensnare small nations for economic and possibly military expansion plans. This follows the intensifying tension between Australia and China fuelled by issues such as alleged foreign interferences and the South East China Sea dispute.

An accusation made by the Australian Government was denied by Mr. Cheng Jingye, China’s ambassador for Australia, when asked by The Age, labelling the claims “ridiculous” and advised Australia to discard “Cold War mindset.” He then reassured that “[they] have a growing economic co-operation with some of the island countries. [And] they are on [an] equal footing.” However, Eric B. Brown, a senior fellow in Asian affairs at Washington-based think tank the Hudson Institute, also believes the “predatory economic methods” used by China can weaken the sovereignty of the small nations and “that [it] could create a military threat to countries such as Australia and [a]ffect the ability of the U.S. Navy and its allies to maintain freedom and order in the Pacific.”

Having said that, transparency of China’s objective and intention is unclear. In recent years, China’s presence in the region is greater than ever.  Therefore, challenging China’s development and aid programmes will not achieve prosperity and peace in the region. According to Lowy Institute, Australia has cut financial aid support by $11 billion in the past decade, eroding its influence, while China contributed $2.3 billion extending its political leverage over the region. Naturally, the small nations will seek for another major player to fill in the gap left by the cuts to ensure short-term projects will be funded. Hence, the Australian Government must instead offer a collaboration with China, including New Zealand, into delivering economic developments that will not impose heavy debt burden. These could be done through increased diplomatic engagement in education, food system, health, security etc.

The infrastructure projects are part of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s signature policy, Belt and Road Initiative, which has an estimated value of more than one trillion dollars. These include construction of roads, bridges, ports, airports and buildings that are expected to provide trade and strategic connections for China. The Pacific region has been undergoing massive construction for years now. Chinese-state owned companies had just built major establishments at Vanuatu, Samoa and Tonga, with all expenses paid for by China through soft loans. Furthermore, China’s ambitious global initiative also stretches to African and European Continents, filling in financial voids left by other advanced nations, while Australia still expresses concern over the controversial initiative.

Australia’s decision to pursue a competitive approach to China’s rise in the Pacific will only worsen the ‘icy’ relationship between the two nations. Instead, Australia should reach a peaceful diplomatic agreement with China, New Zealand and Pacific Islands to deliver mutual benefits for each nation. It is important Australia regains the trust of the Island countries for regional security reasons, especially with the military expansion of China in the South China Sea disputed islands, as this is valuable on maintaining peace and order in the region.

Jan Noya