PM’s Pacific pivot a bid to dilute China’s sway
lings for schoolkids. The kids 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 Niue, along with four others in the Pacific region. It’s part of a big “Pacific pivot” which also includes a $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 TV 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 that, the Prime Minister made no direct mention of China. Instead, he said this was about ensuring “our Pacific partnerships get stronger with time”. Still, everyone knows this sharpened focus on the Pacific is a response to China’s growing interest and activity in the region.
The response is entirely appropriate, but Australia needs to be careful not to frame the Pacific as a strategic contest with Beijing. If we’re there only 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 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 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 buy Australian gas pipelines.
Morrison’s local announcements on rail, road and water infrastructure went down well as he toured Queensland. And, with the help of $230 million for local projects, he locked in the support of independent MP Bob Katter to protect his minority government.
Even Malcolm Turnbull’s Q&A performance wasn’t as bad for the Government as some had feared.
Next week the PM 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. DAVID SPEERS IS THE SKY NEWS POLITICAL EDITOR.