It is in Aus­tralia’s in­ter­est to down­play its Pa­cific in­volve­ment as a diplo­matic con­test with Bei­jing

The Daily Telegraph (Sydney) - - Saturday Extra - DAVID SPEERS David Speers is po­lit­i­cal ed­i­tor at Sky News.

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

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