When I was approached to speak on the topic ‘Australia and China in the Pacific, I wondered why there was interest in my views, particularly when there was already much public discussion and debate around the topic in the media in Australia, with all the views and opinions seeming to suggest that Australia needs to reclaim its dominance of and influence in the Pacific because China was taking up that space.

Makereta Komai. Photo: PRN

Makereta Komai. Photo: PRN

Then it dawned on me: what may be absent from the discussion is the Pacific perspective or point of view that I can contribute in the hope that the Pacific will be understood better as the region has become a ‘contested’ space not only for Australia and China but other global players.

This concern was pointedly emphasised by the Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum, Dame Meg Taylor at the State of the Pacific Conference in Canberra in September 2018 when she said: “Indeed, the Pacific Islands region has been largely absent from these debates. Very little has been written and published from a Pacific Islands perspective and the Pacific Islands has rarely featured in the discussions except from a perspective of being vulnerable to China’s influence.”

And this where I’d like to contribute; to provide that Pacific perspective based on what I have seen and reported in at least the past decade on this much-debated topic.

So why has there been a sudden interest from China in the Pacific in the past 10 years and what has Australia done to lose its grips on its so-called ‘backyard’ or sphere of influence?

In the context of my presentation, when I am refer to the Pacific I am talking about the 14 Pacific Island members of the Pacific Islands Forum.

All of the 14 Pacific Island nations have diplomatic, economic, trade and people-to-people ties with both nations, some dating as far back as the late 1960s and 70s.

But in the last decade there has been a significant shift in how the Pacific engage in regional and global diplomacy. In the words of the former President of Kiribati, Anote Tong the Pacific needs to “chart its own course” and “find its voice and place in the global arena.”

My talk focusses on what I consider are the four key game-changers for the Pacific that have shaped how they view themselves and their relationship with the rest of the world.

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Collective voice against climate change

The first game changer was building the collective voice in the fight against climate change. In 2004, when President Tong first raised the devastating impacts of climate change on his people, in his address to the United Nations, the whole world realised that climate change was already impacting low-lying islands, particularly in the Pacific. It didn’t end there. President Tong and leaders of small island nations like Tuvalu, Marshall Islands and Nauru continued to raise their concerns at the annual gathering of Pacific leaders urging them to support their call for global action.

Following these urgent pleas from small and low lying island countries, the rest of the Pacific took up the fight and rallied behind these most vulnerable nations to urge the international community to agree to a unified global response to better protect the environment. Pacific Islands Forum Leaders issued joint declarations and communiques supporting the Pacific position on climate change at regional and global climate negotiations.

As a result, Pacific nations were recognised as global leaders in calling for action from industrialised nations to act responsibly and limit their greenhouse gas emissions. This united and collective Pacific voice attracted global attention to the region and for the first time, Fiji, a small island developing state, was chosen in 2017 to lead the global climate talks.

One of the lessons from the successful campaign in amplifying the Pacific voice in climate change was the strength in working together as a group of nations, and the realisation that their strength was in their numbers and in their collective voice.

‘Tuna diplomacy’

The second game changer for the Pacific is what is termed ‘tuna diplomacy’. Tuna has shaped regional politics and influenced the relationship between Pacific Islands States and major trading partners including China. Through a new model of cooperation, the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA) comprising eight countries (Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Tuvalu) established a Vessel Day Scheme (VDS) to limit purse seine fishing access to their waters.

The VDS scheme is the single most successful resource management model in the Pacific using rights-based control over their fisheries resources. Under the scheme, fishing fleets are required to purchase fishing days at a minimum of US$8,000 per day, provide 100 percent coverage of all purse seiners, provide in-port transhipment of tuna and an annual three-month moratorium on the use of fish aggregating devices (FADs). This has improved conservation and management of tuna caught in PNA countries while increasing the revenue share for island member countries from US$60m in 2010 to an estimated US$400m last year.

Blue Pacific narrative

The third game changer for the Pacific will be ocean management or what is now being promoted as the Blue Pacific narrative where Pacific countries are called to exercise stronger strategic autonomy over the Pacific Ocean and its resources. In recent years, the Pacific has witnessed increased geostrategic competition and the Pacific Ocean is at the centre of this stepped-up engagements from new and emerging global players.

At the Pacific Leaders’ Summit in Nauru in September 2018, leaders reaffirmed the Blue Pacific as the basis of ‘asserting’ the region’s solidarity on the global stage and securing potential development assistance to drive collective ambition and aspiration for the Pacific region.

In the words of the Prime Minister of Samoa, Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi: “The Blue Pacific platform offers all Pacific countries the capabilities to address a changing geostrategic landscape. The opportunity to realise the full benefits of the Blue Pacific rests in our ability to work and stand together as a political bloc. And the challenge for us is maintaining solidarity in the face of intense engagement of an ever growing number of partners in our region. We should not let that divide us!”

Under the flagship of the Blue Pacific identity, Pacific nations are again building a collective voice and asserting their common values and concerns. The Blue Pacific is about shared stewardship of the Pacific Ocean and the recognition that Pacific Island Countries manage 20 percent of the world’s oceans in their Exclusive Economic zone (EEZs).

To make this happen Pacific countries realise the need to secure their maritime borders. The settlement of maritime boundaries provides certainty of ownership of the Pacific Ocean space, which is critical to managing their ocean resources, biodiversity and ecosystems as well as fighting the impacts of climate change. It was revealed to Pacific Leaders in Nauru that more countries are in the process of negotiating the 13 outstanding shared boundaries. There are 47 shared boundaries covering the Pacific Ocean and 35 have been concluded with treaties signed to secure ownership of these boundaries.

Fiji’s influence

The fourth game changer relates to the political transformation in Fiji from 2009 onwards, which in some ways contributed to deepening of relations between China and Pacific Island countries.

After the removal of the democratically elected government in Fiji, the island nation was suspended from the Pacific Islands Forum in 2009 which forced Fiji to ‘consider other donors and partners beyond Australia and New Zealand’. The suspension was a major turning point in its relations with Australia, pushing Fiji to become one of China’s strongest allies in the Pacific. From around 2011, China’s growth as a new power in the Pacific started to increase as evidenced by its development assistance.

According to the aid data compiled by the Lowy Institute, China’s development assistance grew from US$143 million in 2011 to a significant US$1.26 billion this year. This deepening of close relations between Fiji and China was a staging post to demonstrate the level of support and commitment China was willing to give Pacific countries.

China’s Ambassador to Fiji, Qian Bo said: “China’s assistance to Fiji is selfless and sincere with no political conditions attached. China’s assistance to Fiji is unswerving and will not be influenced by the changing international and regional landscapes. It targets the well-being of the Fijian people.”

Slowly, China stepped in to fill a big chunk of the donor funding left by Australia and New Zealand. During that period, China provided US$360 million to the government of Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama.

The Fiji experience provided an ‘inroad’ for China’s stepped-up engagement with other key Pacific countries like Papua New

Guinea, Samoa and Vanuatu. This year, PNG, as the host of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders’ Summit in November is the focus of China’s infrastructure development, investing US$1.9 billion to build roads and other public infrastructure to prepare Port Moresby for the APEC Summit.

These game-changing opportunities have been the catalyst for change for many Pacific countries – changing how they viewed themselves and their relations with others and empowering them to make choices based on their national and sovereign interests. Pacific countries now see themselves as guardians of the Pacific Ocean and its vast resources and see the potential of economic returns as securing the sustainable development of their peoples in the future. They no longer see themselves in the context of being ‘small, poor and dependent’ but as ‘Large Oceanic States’ with wealth and resources that is in great demand by global powers.

As expressed in an article in April this year, Bal Kama of PNG said: “Unlike the past, Pacific Leaders are increasingly assertive and well informed of the geopolitical competition in the region. They have intelligent military and political advisors dedicated to consolidating their sovereignty and exploiting the current geopolitical tussle, while acutely sensitive to any sign of bullying or cohesion.”

Pacific countries now demand a greater share of the wealth and resources they own and want to be respected and treated as equals. It was quite refreshing to hear New Zealand’s foreign Affairs Minister, Winston Peters in Nauru that his country’s new ‘Pacific Reset’ policy aims to treat Pacific countries as equals and will do away with the ‘donor-recipient’ attitude that has been the symbol of bilateral relations between the Pacific and many of its development partners.

Through this amplified and collective co-operation as a group of nations, Pacific countries have attracted more global players into the region – who are keen to partner with Pacific nations in addressing climate change and benefit from tuna and other oceans resources. These new players have opened up choices and provided alternative development partners for the Pacific region. Increasingly these new and emerging players like China, Taiwan, India, Indonesia, United Arab Emirates, Cuba, Spain, Turkey, are putting pressure on traditional partners like Australia.

So why is China a popular ally for the Pacific?

In the past decade China has entered the Pacific in a significant way. Initially, China’s interest was to counter Taiwan’s influence and build its political support in the Pacific, but over the years China has seen greater opportunities in the region’s natural resources like natural gas in PNG, seabed minerals and tuna resources. Its expansion is also linked to its Belt and Road Initiative that aims to expand its global economic influence through major infrastructure projects.

ecently, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing outlined the four key features of its aid support to the Pacific. These are:

  • China as a developing country like many Pacific nations understands the challenges they face in achieving sustainable development;
  • China provides aid on the basis of respecting the wishes of island nations without any political conditions;
  • China’s aid is aimed at promoting the well-being of the people; and,
  • China’s aid does not compete with other development partners or donors.

These four principles are attractive to Pacific countries. Some of them having been independent nations for almost five decades, feel confident to make their own decisions in the best interest of their nation and its people and to be recognised and respected as equal partners.

The Pacific Aid Map by Lowy Institute revealed that apart from Fiji and PNG receiving the largest percentage of Chinese aid, there were also increases in Chinese investment and aid to Samoa of US$169.7 million, Vanuatu US$190.45 million and Federated States of Micronesia with US$86.23 million.

Australia on the other hand remains the largest aid donor to the Pacific spending US$6.58b in the past seven years, compared to China’s US$1.26 billion. The majority of Australia’s development assistance is directed at improving good governance, support towards health and education sectors and humanitarian aid while China is focussed on building major infrastructure in the islands.

Despite this reality, Australia has not been viewed favourably in the Pacific region. The perception is that Australia holds a superior and patronising attitude towards the Pacific, using the island nations for its own interests, particularly in the global fight against terrorism and securing its borders and interested only in the Pacific votes at the UN and other multilateral agencies.

If Australia is serious about being the preferred ‘partner of choice’, then it must lead by example and genuinely interact with Pacific leaders on issues that concern them – like climate change, trade and economic relations and labour mobility.

In fact, since the rise of China, many Pacific countries are now ‘within and closer’ to Canberra’s radar because of the bilateral offers and assistance from Beijing. One of the recent examples is Australia stepping in to fund the new high-speed internet cable between Australia and the Solomon Islands after national security concerns were raised about Chinese state-owned company, Huawei, being contracted to build the project. Also, in August 2018, Australia announced it had successfully blocked China from funding a major regional military base in Fiji, a move that reveals intensifying concern over geostrategic competition in the Pacific region.

In conclusion, the desire by Australia for the Pacific to be a ‘partner of choice’ can still be a reality because Australia will remain ‘Big Brother’ to the small island nations of the Pacific. Many of the island nations remain dependent on remittances from Australia, which the World Bank estimates to be around US$120 million annually, which have positively improved the livelihoods of peoples and their communities.

Australia has invested greatly in securing maritime borders through aerial surveillance and new patrol boats. It has assisted its Pacific neighbours in dealing with natural disasters, maintaining law and order and restoring good governance. This relationship is respected and valued in the Pacific.

However, with the rise of China and other global players in the Pacific, Australia will need to compete with these powers if it wants to remain a dominant and influential country in the region. If Australia wants to be a valued and trusted partner then it needs to be attentive to the needs of the Pacific and act as a genuine partner, as articulated in Canberra by Dame Meg Taylor: “If Australia is concerned with how detrimental Chinese aid to the region is, they also need to be listening to what Pacific Leaders have to say about it. If Australia turns a blind eye to the issue of climate change, it will be a difficult journey for all of us.”

Limiting the influence of China will require better partnerships with more open and honest dialogue with Pacific Leaders. Dame Meg warned that if Australia doesn’t act on the Pacific’s climate change concerns, there may not be a sympathetic ear for Australia’s concerns about China.

*Makereta Komai is general manager of the Pacific Islands News Association and editor of its Pacnews service. This article is an edited version of a speech delivered at the ‘Australia and China in the Pacific’ public forum at La Trobe University in Melbourne on Thursday 20 September 2018 titled “The Pacific – a contested space for global powers”.