Australia hovers on China outreach to Pacific

By Chen Hong Source:Global Times Published: 2019/1/21 13:53:22

Does it feel bizarre if the richest guy in your neighborhood, who has been ignoring and snubbing you for the past 10 to 20 years, suddenly turns up at your doorstep, trying to flatter and offering sumptuous gifts? The surprise visitor talks sweetly of the close bond with you, and calls you a member of his family. 

The last time an Australian prime minister visited Vanuatu was in 1990, and Fiji in 2006. As recently as 2015, then Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton made a faux pas when he remarked disdainfully that for the Pacific islands, "time doesn't mean anything when you're about to have water lapping at your door", referring to the imminent plight of the island nations threatened by rising sea levels because of climate change. Tony Abbott as PM made the steepest ever cuts to Australia's international aid programs, with massive reduction in financial support to tackle drought and other El Niño-related climate problems in the Pacific, as well as curtailing infrastructure and other development projects in the region.

Unlike his predecessors Bob Hawke and John Howard, who visited the island nations only as part of their trips to attend the Pacific Island Forum, current Australian PM Scott Morrison's recent visits to Vanuatu and Fiji were historic in that they were made independently as a specific gesture to show the renewal of Australia's focus on the region, called the Pacific "step-up". 

The sudden reversal in stance has been unambiguous keeping in mind so-called China's presence and influence in the region. According to international media and think tanks, China is now the second largest aid donor in the South Pacific, committing over $6 billion to high-priority economic projects. 

Chinese aid to the region is principally directed at poverty alleviation and livelihood improvement. A bulk of the funding has been funnelled into infrastructure development projects including roads, bridges, schools and sports facilities, ports and power plants. In addition, China sends medical expert teams, and Chinese medical ships make regular port calls providing world-class medical services. Training programs are conducted in various professional fields to develop local expertise, and as a way to demonstrate the Chinese adage that it is better to teach those in need how to fish, rather than merely giving them fish. The Pacific Plan endorsed by the Pacific Island Forum has been strongly supported by China to promote regional cooperation and prosperity.

During his state visit to Papua New Guinea in November 2018, Chinese President Xi Jinping held a meeting with leaders of eight Pacific island countries and underscored in his keynote speech mutual respect and trust as the cornerstone of the strategic partnership between China and Pacific countries. 

Fijian Prime Minister Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama referred to China as "Fiji's staunch cooperation partner and sincere friend". Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sa'ilele Malielegaoi praised China for coming to Samoa's assistance "on the basis of our requests". 

The anxiety and psychological vigilance demonstrated by Australia and some other Western countries toward the positive and constructive relationship between China and the Pacific countries is ridiculous, even pathetic. China's involvement in the region does not exclude other countries, and local stability and prosperity can be a collaborative venture. Morrison talked about his Pacific trip as "part of our refocusing of our international efforts on our own region, in our own backyard and making sure we can make the biggest possible difference". Yet China does not attempt to turn the South Pacific into its patch of influence, but at the same time Beijing does not recognize it as anyone's exclusive backyard. 

The South Pacific is located in an area which is the natural extension of the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. The Belt and Road initiative has been bringing financial, economic, and social dynamism into this region, which shares its future with mankind. Stoking and spreading rumours and fears of the so-called Chinese debt trap is despicable. Vanuatu Prime Minister Charlot Salwai appreciated the Vanuatu-China strategic partnership which "has brought us many benefits and is far from exhausting its potential."

When in Suva, Morrison was urged by Fijian Prime Minister Bainimarama to turn to clean power resources, to place "the welfare of Pacific peoples and vulnerable people in the world" above industrial interests. Morrison brushed the request aside, while indulging in a self-congratulatory way in Australia's emission reduction policies. Maybe instead of calling the Pacific islands "vuvale" - the Fijian word for family, Morrison needs to adopt a more compassionate and realistic approach toward his neighbors.

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

Newspaper headline: Anxious Canberra hovers around Beijing’s outreach to Pacific


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