Geopolitics should not muddle South Pacific

By Shen Yujia Source:Global Times Published: 2019/7/23 20:33:41

Photo: IC

China's growing presence in the Pacific island countries, especially in the Melanesian states including Papua New Guinea (PNG), has attracted Australia's attention in the past few years. Interestingly, Australia, as the biggest donor to the Pacific island countries, has been luring the US and Japan to commit more for years. Finally, since China as an unexpected "guest" started to invest, the mood in Canberra has soured.  

In 2018, Australia-US Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN) added countering China's "pernicious meddling" in the Pacific island countries to the annual meeting's agenda. China's growing influence may have irked some parties but it did provide this region with tremendous economic opportunities for transformation. 

China's presence in the Pacific region has been growing significantly since 2012. Beijing's growing footprint has helped the region's economy. Take PNG as an example. Chinese private and public enterprises have been playing a positive role in the region's economic development. In 2017, Chinese enterprises' contracts in PNG had been valued at $1.73 billion. Thousands of job opportunities are generated by Chinese investment. Thirty-two Chinese enterprises registered with Papua New Guinea Chinese Business Council have employed more than 8000 locals. 

The West Pacific region, comprised of PNG, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, has long been regarded as the strategic buffer for Australia. A strategic geopolitical location can put countries like PNG at a disadvantage. During the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in 2018, instead of being in the spotlight for free trade and economic growth, the island nation found itself in the middle of a wrestling match between two giants. However, national interest is paramount. Former PNG prime minister Peter O'Neill told the Post-Courier newspaper, "The rest of the world is making business with China and we cannot simply sit back and allow these opportunities to go by." The Pacific countries are well aware that geopolitical jousting will further complicate the situation. Hence, none of them have endorsed the Indo-Pacific strategy proposed by the US, Australia and Japan. 

China's presence has undoubtedly opened up more economic opportunities for this region. China and Australia share the same goal in a sense that a prosperous Asia Pacific benefits all. However, Australia doesn't just fear isolation, it is scared of "invasion."

With a more collaborative and less cold-war-like mind-set, China and Australia may take a more constructive approach to work together in this region, which is home to some least developed countries. PNG ranked 154 on the UNDP Human Development Index in 2016. PNG education system did not go beyond the secondary level. There was no road connecting its capital to any other major cities. Literacy has risen, governance is improving and infrastructure is developing. However, this region is still the least developed in the Asia Pacific. Australia, though the core nation, cannot bring prosperity to the region all by itself. However, cooperation under the framework of the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative can help develop the country's infrastructure. Its trade relations with other countries will improve.

The China-Australia relationship, which is built upon mutual trust and prosperity on the back of trade and people-to-people contacts, has been strong. Their cooperation with a third party could also build upon the trust and provide a platform for communication between Beijing and Canberra. When it comes to military affairs, the only countries militarizing the region are Australia and the US. In 2018, the two countries announced that they were going to re-establish the naval base on Manus Island located to the north of PNG.  

The author is research fellow of the Center for Oceanian Studies at Sun Yat-Sen University.


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