Australian unease over China's outreach in South Pacific betrays envy

By Chen Hong Source:Global Times Published: 2019/7/15 19:55:44

Photo: IC

Scott Morrison's first overseas trip after being re-elected prime minister of Australia was to the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific in early July. This demonstrated that his style of foreign policy aims at spreading influence to neighboring island countries. His signature program, the Pacific step-up, and the A$3 billion Pacific Infrastructure Bank package are designed as a pushback against the development and aid projects under the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) framework in the region, regarded by Canberra as not only a rival, but also a threat.

Australia's perception of China's motive behind BRI projects in the Pacific region couldn't be farther from truth. The nonsensical bogey of a menacing China as a threat to Australia's security and sovereignty based upon ideological differences is so disconnected from reality that it could only be diagnosed as an obsessive paranoia. 

While China advocates a shared future for mankind, some Western countries such as Australia are still fixated on the Cold War-style confrontational mind-set, resonating the Trumpian rhetoric of decoupling from China, which is absurd considering pervasive globalization.

Australia's unease over the Chinese presence in the South Pacific stems from China's success in Pacific island nations with constructive and concrete measures in strategic, economic and diplomatic cooperation as well as people-to-people communication. China's new concept of the Blue Economy accords with the island nations' ocean development strategy and long-term approaches. The bilateral and multilateral model that China has been upholding inspires better collaboration. 

In a number of areas, cooperation between China and the island countries on the BRI has brought about desirable business, trade, investment and aid outcomes, helping bring about positive social and cultural changes to the local communities, including education and social well-being. It enhances multicultural diversity against the background of globalization and people-to-people relations, which is of vital importance to mutual progress and collective development.

The fear and smear campaign about the so-called debt trap and white elephant projects launched by some media outlets and politicians in the US, Australia and elsewhere has not been successful with the Pacific island countries, which have steadily pursued independent diplomatic and trade relations. 

According to Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, the BRI is in sync with Fiji's development target, enormously facilitating the archipelago nation's economic, social and cultural growth and improvement in living standards. Pragmatic cooperation within the BRI framework has reaped benefits for not only Fiji but also the entire South Pacific region.

There are considerable differences between the Chinese and Australian areas of focus in this region. China's aid and cooperation programs are mainly in the form of infrastructure projects such as bridges, airports, sea ports and hospitals, while Australia stresses more upon issues such as AIDS prevention, education, human rights, legal system and gender equality. 

The Pacific countries have a huge demand for funds, advanced technology and professionals with technological expertise and competence, which China can provide. China does not regard Australia as its competitor, but a collaborator in the South Pacific. China's aid and investment programs are not aimed at regional leadership or threatening the sovereignty and territorial integrity of other countries, but seek to bring about economic exchange and joint development with mutual benefits.

As the largest donor to the Pacific island countries, Australia believes that the security, stability and economic prosperity of the South Pacific region is of long-term importance to Australia. As the biggest player, Australia is committed to improving this region's economic, diplomatic and security environment. 

China does not oppose Australia's leading role and believes an innovative equilibrium of regional and international relations can be of practical significance. The BRI can serve as a channel to strengthen this region's connectivity and partnership, including that of Australia, with China's growing economy. 

What's more, on broader issues such as anti-terrorism, peace-keeping and disaster relief, China could work with the island countries as well as Australia to contribute to the long-term stability and prosperity of the North and South Pacific.

The author is a professor and director of Australian Studies Center, East China Normal University.

Newspaper headline: Why Oz is uneasy about China in Pacific

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