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Emerging Markets

Australia’s visits highlight mounting weaponisation of Pacific islands

Sydney, Australia. 1st May, 2019. Leader of the opposition in the Australian senate Penny Wong gives a speech to the Lowy institute in Sydney, Australia, May 1, 2019. Wong said on Wednesday that China is vital to the future of Australia. Credit: Hao Yalin

The recent refocusing of Australia’s foreign policy on the Pacific islands has largely been driven by fears about China, foreign policy experts tell GlobalMarkets

Australia’s decision to undertake eight visits to the Pacific islands in just over four months is being seen as an illustration of the importance that major advanced nations are attaching to the region.

Penny Wong, its minister for foreign affairs, is midway through a tour of the Marshall Islands and Nauru that comes against a backdrop of Chinese and US aid to the Pacific. In late September the US pledged $210m to Pacific island nations soon after an earlier $600m pledge made by US vice-president Kamala Harris in Fiji in June.

These pledges followed China signing a security pact with the Solomon Islands in April, following years of increasing engagement with states including Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Tonga and Vanuatu — the four nations in the region with a standing military. It is thought that China seeks a Chinese security pact with 10 Pacific island countries, and sent its foreign minister Wang Yi on a 10-day regional tour in June to this end.

Wong will officially open Australia’s embassy in the Marshall Islands and will meet newly elected Nauru president Russ Kun. In a statement from her office, Wong said the trip “demonstrat[ed] the priority the new Australian government places on the region.”

Australia and the US, along with the UK, New Zealand and Japan, launched an initiative called Partners in Blue Pacific in June, ostensibly to help island nations tackle climate change and illegal fishing, but widely understood to be an effort to counter Chinese expanded influence in the region.


PACIFIC FAMILY

Benjamin Herscovitch, a research fellow at Australian National University with a focus on Australia-China relations, said the Pacific had for decades been one of the core regions of focus for Australia’s foreign policy, as a geographic neighbour with strong historical and personal ties.

“But the recent refocusing of Australia’s foreign policy on the Pacific has largely been driven by fears about China,” he told GlobalMarkets.

“The Australian government sees China’s growing diplomatic, trade and investment role in the Pacific as a threat to Australia’s position in the region.”

There is, though, a danger of overstating Chinese influence to the Pacific. A study by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute in June found that China’s military aid to the four standing-army nations between 2000 and 2020 stood at $27.4m, most of it to Papua New Guinea. Over the same period, the study found, Australia provided $963m of military aid and the US $52m.

The Lowy Institute maintains the Pacific Aid Map, which says that China accounts for only 6% of total aid to the Pacific region, at $160.6m. The same map finds that Australia accounts for 35% of aid spending, at $864.6m, and the US 5%.