DAVID SPEERS WARREN
It is in Australia’s interest to downplay its Pacific involvement as a diplomatic contest with Beijing
Niue is a tiny Pacific nation with a population of just 1600. That’s roughly the size of a large Australian high school. The people of Niue are officially citizens of New Zealand. They use New Zealand’s currency and travel on Kiwi passports. But Niue isn’t technically part of New Zealand and it’s now started flirting with China.
Niue recently signed a memorandum of understanding to join China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative. As with the MOU Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has signed, little is known about the deal.
Local reports suggest China has offered to spend nearly $15 million to upgrade an expressway around the island and renovate a number of wharves. In return, China is set to build a GPS base station on Niue, for civilian and military use.
Plainly the 1600 or so locals are happy to take the money. According to New Zealand news site stuff.co.nz China’s Ambassador Wu Xi attended a Constitution Day celebration on Niue a couple of weeks ago and cooked dumplings for school kids. The children were waving red Chinese flags
This is just one example of what’s going on in the Pacific and the backdrop to this week’s announcement from the Prime Minister.
Australia has decided now is a good time to set up a diplomatic mission in tiny Niue, along with four others in Palau, the Marshall Islands, the Cook Islands and French Polynesia.
It’s part of a big “Pacific pivot” which also includes a new $2 billion infrastructure bank (similar to one promised by Bill Shorten last week), $1 billion more to help Australian firms exporting to the Pacific and heightened military training and disaster relief across the region.
“Soft diplomacy” moves will also see Australia build sports grounds and broadcast more Australian television content into the region.
Tony Abbott switched off the “Australia Network”, now Morrison wants to switch it back on (although this time not via the ABC).
In announcing all of this, the Prime Minister made no direct mention of China. Instead, he said this was about ensuring “our Pacific partnerships get stronger with time, that we never take them for granted, that we are a reliable and steady member of the family”.
Still, everyone knows this sharper focus on the Pacific is a response to China’s growing interest and activity in the region.
This response is entirely appropriate, but Australia needs to be careful not to frame the Pacific as a strategic contest with Beijing. If we’re only there to keep China at bay, that’s not going to go down well with either Beijing or the Pacific.
On Thursday Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi emerged from a meeting with his Australian counterpart Marise Payne in Beijing to announce what could be a new approach.
“China and Australia are not competitors or rivals but co-operation partners”, he declared. “We have agreed we could combine and capitalise on our respective strengths to carry out trilateral co-operation involving Pacific Island states.”
There was no indication of how this “co-operation” might take shape, but unless this is just empty rhetoric, Australia should grab this suggestion with both hands. It’s most unlikely Beijing will run all of its decisions past Canberra, but at least some level of co-ordination may address Australia’s concerns over what China is doing. As one senior Australian figure put it, Australia only needs to “dilute” China’s strategic activity in the Pacific, not stop it.
The Pacific pivot and Marise Payne’s positive talks with Mr Wang in Beijing capped off the Morrison government’s best week since the Wentworth by-election.
For all the fascination with which baseball cap Morrison wore, how he ate a meat pie or how often he sat on the blue bus, the government was actually governing this week and for once it was setting the agenda.
Josh Frydenberg made his first big foreign investment decision as Treasurer, knocking back an investment from the Hong Kong listed CKI to purchase Australian gas pipelines.
Even though this wasn’t a Chinese state-owned company, most agreed Frydenberg made the right call in keeping this piece of critical infrastructure in Australian hands.
Morrison’s local announcements on rail, road and water infrastructure went down well as he toured Queensland. And he managed (with the help of $230 million for local projects) to lock in the support of independent MP Bob Katter, to ensure his minority government doesn’t fall over.
Even Malcolm Turnbull’s Q&A performance wasn’t as bad for the government as some had feared. The former PM got a bit off his chest about the cabinet Ministers who deserted him, but importantly he didn’t tip a bucket on Morrison.
Next week the Prime Minister heads to the APEC and East Asia summits where he will be meeting the Chinese leadership among others.
At least China now has a better idea of where Morrison stands.
This sharper focus on the Pacific is a response to China’s growing activity in the region