Scott Morrison and Xi Jinping take on international diplomacy in the Pacific. Beijing boosting regional security, not military. South-west Pacific in political turmoil. ‘Soft power’ review under way as case made for Radio Australia’s return. By Hamish McDonald.

Morrison, China and the Pacific

A group photo at an economic forum this week during the ASEAN Summit in Singapore, with, from left, Jacinda Ardern, Narendra Modi, Li Keqiang,  Lee Hsien Loong, Prayut Chan-o-cha, Scott Morrison and Shinzō Abe.
A group photo at an economic forum this week during the ASEAN Summit in Singapore, with, from left, Jacinda Ardern, Narendra Modi, Li Keqiang, Lee Hsien Loong, Prayut Chan-o-cha, Scott Morrison and Shinzō Abe.
Credit: Roslan Rahman / AFP / Getty Images

Fresh from his accompanying his LNP bus around regional Queensland, Scott Morrison was catapulted this week into the higher realms of diplomacy, at the East Asia Summit in Singapore, where he mingled with Xi Jinping, Joko Widodo, Mike Pence and others.

It was an awkward transition, from goofiness to gravitas, with one chicken coming home to roost when the Indonesians made it clear they were holding off signing a free trade agreement with Australia until Morrison gave up his pre-byelection idea of shifting the Israel embassy to Jerusalem. Signals were sent that Morrison would make this U-turn by Christmas. A destructive and bloody flare-up between Israel and Hamas this week kept Palestinians in Indonesian minds.

But this weekend Morrison is in a place where Australian PMs can walk tall – Port Moresby – for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit. The huge helicopter carrier HMAS Adelaide loomed offshore. Australian jets prowled the skies. Our special forces guarded the conference venue as well as the three rented cruise ships where most delegates are staying, though Pence adopted a fly-in, fly-out approach, over-nighting in Cairns.

Morrison has put chips down on the table in advance of a big-man competition with Xi. In his November 7 speech in Townsville, the PM foreshadowed a $2 billion infrastructure fund for the South Pacific, plus another $1 billion in export credits for Australian contractors. Canberra’s diplomatic network would be extended to the five remaining Pacific Islands Forum countries that don’t yet have an Australian mission, even Niue, whose population is down to some 1624 from its 1970 peak of 5135 after most took the option of migrating to New Zealand.

This week Morrison announced Australia would take the lead in a multi-billion dollar extension of electricity and internet networks in Papua New Guinea, following the earlier allocation of $137 million for an undersea optical-fibre cable linking PNG and the Solomon Islands with Australia, to block China’s Huawei laying it. Morrison will also include PNG, the biggest island country, in Australia’s seasonal worker program.

Naturally, there’s a military dimension as well, because that’s how Canberra and its fevered defence-intelligence community – proudly sponsored in some quarters by the US and European arms industry – think. Canberra will bankroll expansion of a Fiji base to train peacekeepers. A moribund World War II base on Manus Island will reopen under joint PNG-Australian management. A roaming group of Australian soldiers will train the region’s three militaries (in Fiji, PNG and Tonga).

Cheese Jinping

Xi Jinping will be going all-out to project China as a benign and helpful presence, convening a meeting on the APEC sidelines with the eight island countries that recognise Beijing rather than Taipei.

A Chinese vice-minister of foreign affairs, Zheng Zeguang, put it in almost Morrisonesque terms. “China has no intention to touch the cheese of any country,” he said. “Instead China is committed to make the pie of cooperation larger.” He went on to list some of the things the South Pacific had got from China’s $3 billion or so aid and finance, such as power stations, telecoms, hospitals, schools, government offices, convention centres, and training for more than 6000 personnel.

Indeed, Pacific leaders will be wondering if Canberra, Tokyo and Washington would be opening their pockets if China had not showed up. So far, they see China, or at least its government, in a good light.

Its money has lumbered some with white-elephant symbolic projects, because that’s what the Chinese communists do. But talk of “debt-trap” diplomacy is premature, according to a new study by ANU development economists Rohan Fox and Matthew Dornan. Six of the 14 island countries have high levels of debt, but three of these recognise Taiwan and are not eligible for Beijing’s loans. Tonga is the glaring case of high dependency on Chinese funds. Across the island, Beijing holds 12 per cent of the $US11.2 billion in government debt, with the rest coming mostly from domestic borrowing, commercial loans and institutions such as the World Bank.

Anecdotally, friction so far comes from weak enforcement of immigration and environmental controls. Across the islands, self-sponsored migrants mostly from Fujian province have taken over the trading stores and kai (food) cafes, displacing locals from this first step into commerce. At projects such as Ramu Nickel, Chinese corporations have disregarded rules on labour and waste disposal.

Aside from some small arms, boats, vehicles and uniforms, Beijing has not been boosting the militaries. The security input of most concern has been police training, especially in Fiji. This suggests that rather than Canberra’s latest military input, a better focus would be policing and human security, especially for the region’s women. Indeed, the Fox-Dornan study suggests the region is not short of funding, particularly for hard infrastructure, and Canberra should continue to emphasise human development in education, health and small-scale agriculture. Last year’s election shambles in PNG, and the scandal of the 40 Maseratis bought for APEC, shows the governance there crumbling without any help from external subversion.

Disunited nations

With or without the Chinese, the south-west Pacific will demand a lot of our attention anyway.

The November 4 referendum in New Caledonia showed a more narrow vote than expected in favour of staying with France – 56 per cent – which, as veteran Australian diplomat Bill Fisher points out, has “galvanised” the Kanak independence movement and forced a rethink on Paris.

Next June, the island of Bougainville votes on whether to leave PNG, the result subject to approval by the PNG parliament – a process that could reignite civil war.

And in elections this week, Fiji saw stirrings of ethnic-Fijian nationalism, led by one-time coup leader Sitiveni Rabuka, against strongman prime minister Josaia Voreqe “Frank” Bainimarama, the former navy officer who staged the coup to end coups in 2006 and later rammed through a multiracial constitution.

Silent treatment

Morrison – and a week ahead of him, Bill Shorten – insisted Australia was not just interested in the region to keep others out, but would work with all-comers on good projects, and really, really liked Pacific islanders and wanted to help out.

The glaring issue is our dwindling conversation with the region’s peoples. The Coalition’s war with the ABC led to the broadcaster dumping its external services to save core domestic functions. Paying a political debt to Rupert Murdoch, Tony Abbott ended the ABC’s $220 million 10-year funding for its overseas TV service. In January last year, Radio Australia’s shortwave services to the Pacific ended, its frequencies taken over by China. Its regional specialists, such as Sean Dorney and Campbell Cooney, were made redundant.

The two-way dialogue has thus largely ended. Desultory studies of “soft power” and external broadcasting are now under way in Canberra. The government’s excuse that islanders can rely on the internet and local FM is a joke in most places. Electricity is the first thing to go down in a cyclone, tsunami or earthquake. It often cuts out anyway. Warnings on shortwave radio, broadcast from Australia and heard on battery-powered household receivers when all local links are down, can save lives, says Vanuatu’s prime minister Charlot Salwai, in support of Radio Australia. External news reports also give cowed local media the “cover” to bring up inconvenient truths in places like Fiji.

A submission by an impressive group of Pacific experts, led by ABC veteran Jemima Garrett, puts three options for a return to the airwaves. The biggest, costing up to $75 million a year (three-quarters of the price of one F-35 fighter), would see a full TV, radio, and digital Asia-Pacific service, with the added benefit of a Mandarin service that could counter Beijing’s grip on Australia’s domestic Chinese-language media. In Townsville, Morrison edged into this, proposing the export of Australian commercial TV programs to see “our Pacific family switching on to the same stories, news, drama and sports we are watching at home”. Those places with TV are already rusted-on NRL fans. Is Morrison pinning hopes on the couplings of Grant and Tayla on Love Island to follow? Well, it’s a start.


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 17, 2018 as "Pacific gravity".

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