Australia ramps up rivalry with China in Pacific

PHOTO: A traditional war dance was performed to welcome Australia's top military brass to PNG. (ABC News: Natalie Whiting)
PHOTO: A traditional war dance was performed to welcome Australia’s top military brass to PNG. (ABC News: Natalie Whiting)

AS the Australian Government presses on with its pivot to the Pacific, no-one wants to use the ‘C’ word.

But China is clearly playing a central role in the unprecedented amount of attention the region is currently receiving from Australia — even if its officials won’t admit it.

It’s just six weeks into the new year and already the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister, the Assistant Minister for the Pacific, the Chief of Defence Force and the Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police have visited the region.

Mr Morrison and his wife Jenny disembarking at Port Vila International Airport.
Scott Morrison and his wife Jenny disembarking at Port Vila International Airport in January. (Picture: Vanuatu Independent)

“This is one of the most intense periods, if not perhaps the most intense periods of engagement I think I’ve ever seen,” Pacific expert James Batley from Australia National University said.

It’s a pattern we can expect to see more of as the year unfolds — and not just from Australia.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is rumoured to be making another visit to the region after a historic trip to Papua New Guinea at the end of last year.

New Zealand and India also have high-profile visits planned.

So what explains the suddenly intense focus on the region?

James Batley said there are a few issues at play.

Some Pacific countries have been more assertive in their foreign policy in the last few decades, forcing Australia to work harder to retain influence.

But he said the spectre of China rising in the Pacific is also key.

“I think China is a really important factor,” he said.

“China has, in a sense, become a disruptive force in the Pacific.”

“[It’s] a country that is more influential now than it has been in the past, and is looking to spread its influence in the region.”

No one is more focused on this disruption than defence and intelligence officials in Canberra.

It’s not surprising that there has been a strong security focus in recent trips by Australian heavyweights.

Chief of the Defence Force, General Angus Campbell (right) and PNG Defence Force Commander Gilbert Toropo. (ABC News: Natalie Whiting)
Chief of the Defence Force, General Angus Campbell (right) and PNG Defence Force Commander Gilbert Toropo. (ABC News: Natalie Whiting)

The Chief of the Defence Force, General Angus Campbell, conceded his recent tour of the region was partly due to the Government’s ‘step up’ in the region.

But when asked about the role China has played in the Government’s new approach, he was careful not to use its name when replying.

“I think it’s much more about a relationship between Australia and its immediate neighbours, and supporting countries that are seeking our assistance who may be fragile,” he said.

“There are many countries who work in this region, but Australia has always been here and is always going to be here.”

Standing in front of a new patrol boat that Australia has gifted Papua New Guinea, General Campbell said there is a long history of close relationships between the two countries.

This is true of both the defence force and General Campbell personally.

But things have stepped up a notch recently.

The Guardian-class patrol boat gifted by Australia to PNG arrived in February. (Pic: Natalie Whiting)
The Guardian-class patrol boat gifted by Australia to PNG arrived in February. (Pic: Natalie Whiting)

Rumours that China was in talks with Vanuatu to set up a military base in the country sparked alarm in Canberra last year.

Despite assurances from Vanuatu that it was not happening, there is still a genuine concern about a Chinese military presence in the region among security officials.

Australia has been pushing a bilateral security deal with Vanuatu in its recent visits, but so far the country has declined.

Despite this, General Campbell said all of his discussions in the country were positive.

“I think the relationship is very strong and naturally we will work together only as invited and in the forms that we’re invited,” he said.

“That’s the way to build neighbourhoods, to build communities and to have a strong relationship.”

Australia is set to fund a military base in Fiji, beating China to the position of sole foreign donor.

It is also partnering with Papua New Guinea and the United States to redevelop a naval base on Manus Island.

During her visit to Papua New Guinea this month, Assistant Minister to the Pacific Anne Ruston said, “This is our region and we are the partner of choice”.

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