Oceans of influence key to China’s long Pacific game
30th May 2022

Australia’s new Foreign Affairs Minister, Penny Wong, made Australia’s pitch to the leaders of the Pacific Islands nations last week. On Monday, China’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Wang Yi, made his. He sat down in Fiji with ministers from 10 Pacific island countries to invite them to join Beijing’s sphere of influence.

Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong and her Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, both toured the Pacific.Credit:

He has met with initial resistance. But this is only the beginning of the beginning. Whatever happens this week, “China will keep pressing its interests harder than ever,” Penny Wong tells me.

“We can expect more of what we have seen. Australia has our work cut out. We want to bring new energy and more resources to the Pacific and the new government wants to make a uniquely Australian contribution.”

She found that the region’s leaders welcomed the new government’s more active climate change policy and its more enthusiastic interest.

Australia has no time to waste and Wong wasted none. She arrived in Suva to begin her Pacific visit on day four of the life of the new government. It helps to turn up. In the last three years her predecessor, Marise Payne, had made just two trips to the Pacific, visiting just three nations.

As the head of the National Security College at ANU, Rory Medcalf, put it on Monday, “the fight is on in earnest.” Not that the fight wasn’t already on under the Morrison government, he adds, but “now we have more of a chance”.

Illustration by Dionne Gain.Credit:

“The Morrison government was making a national security effort but the missing link was the trust base,” says Medcalf.

“There’s no guarantee of success, but there’s a better chance of holding the line. By being more consistent and respectful in our own messaging we will have a better chance of persuading Pacific partners that harmful elements of China’s policy are to be resisted.”

The fight for what exactly? The Pacific island nations sometimes call themselves collectively the Blue Continent. Because rather than being conceived as a scattering of small islands, they want the world to see them as the masters of an enormous oceanic territory spanning over 30 million square kilometres. Which is equivalent to about a fifth of the earth’s total land area.

Beijing sees this as a fight for three-fold advantage, according to Medcalf. First is “the enormous, semi-tapped resource resources, fish stocks and seabed resources and minerals” controlled by the Pacific islands nations as the owners of their far-flung exclusive economic zones.

China’s government “will try to turn all these governments to allow China privileged access to the Pacific’s massive resource zone, there’s a pretty ugly logic to that”.

Second is the fight for geopolitical advantage. In the last three years, China has persuaded two more Pacific nations to turn away from Taiwan and give diplomatic recognition to Beijing instead.

The Solomons and Kiribati became the ninth and tenth of the 14 Pacific island nations to recognise Beijing. Only four retain ties with Taiwan. Beijing hopes to continue to “strangle Taiwan’s diplomatic presence” in the region, in Medcalf’s words. And recognition is precursor to the next fight.

Third is strategic. By establishing persistent military access to the Pacific islands nations that sit amid vital shipping lanes, China would acquire the ability to put its boot on Australia’s trade and military lifelines to the US and Asia.

This was the Japanese Imperial Army’s aim in World War II, and it’s the aim of the People’s Liberation Army today – in exactly the same zones of Pacific geography.

“Yes, it’s partly about knocking Australia out in any future confrontation or conflict, but it’s also very bad for Taiwan, it’s very bad for Japan, and it’s very bad for the US if China can dominate the sea lanes,” says Medcalf. “Because it restricts our trade with the US and Japan at any time and blocks it in the event of conflict.

“Australia’s position is crucial. China is going to want guaranteed access to all these oceans – the Pacific Ocean, the Indian Ocean and the Southern Ocean. Australia’s maritime footprint is an obstacle to all that.”

Professor Rory Medcalf: “China is going to want guaranteed access to all these oceans – the Pacific Ocean, the Indian Ocean and the Southern Ocean. Australia’s maritime footprint is an obstacle to all that.”Credit:Rohan Thomson

It takes only a glance at the globe to show that Australia sits at the confluence of these three great oceans, together occupying a third of the planet, perhaps more. So long as Australia is a US ally, it can complicate China’s access to all three. If Australia can be rendered neutral, it could complicate US access to all three.

Medcalf says: “For China the most tempting part of the Pacific play is to set up a series of military access points [in the Pacific] where it can tie up the US in a conflict and neutralise Australia.”

Of course, Wang Yi did not present China’s interests in this way on Monday when he sat down with the Pacific leaders. He offered them help. In the form of a “Common Development Vision” agreement with a five-year action plan attached.

The draft, published by Reuters news agency last week, showed Beijing proposing a wide agenda for cooperation. It covers the fields of health and the pandemic, law enforcement and forensics, training for police forces, data networks and cybersecurity, a free trade area, support on climate change and development, and an offer to “strengthen exchanges and co-operation in the fields of traditional and non-traditional security”.

The president of the Federated States of Micronesia, David Panuelo, urged his colleagues to reject the agreement because it would move any signatory “very close into Beijing’s orbit, intrinsically tying the whole of our economies and societies to them”.

Evidently, some of the others agreed with him.

Australia currently gives more aid money, but Beijing’s development aid is much more conspicuous, building parliaments and sports stadiums, roads and ports in the time it takes Australia to conduct reviews and let tenders.

But no officials openly touched on Beijing’s real trump in this game – its ability to offer large bribes to Pacific politicians. Australia can’t compete on this. So, Penny Wong offers what Beijing can’t.

While she is adding half a billion in extra aid over four years, her “uniquely Australian” contribution will include more emphasis on shared connections with rugby and churches, work visas and immigration opportunities. And she’s promised to consult respectfully as she goes. It’s a beginning.

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