SYDNEY — Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison is invoking the three big constants of Pacific Island life — family, faith and football — as he seeks to counter China’s ambitions for greater influence in the region.
In recent years, China has made its presence felt more broadly across the Pacific through soft loans, infrastructure projects, ship visits, tourism, investment and business deals. It now has diplomatic relations with eight Pacific island countries, including the two biggest, Papua New Guinea and Fiji. It also wants to woo six Pacific nations that currently recognize an independent Taiwan, which China regards as a breakaway province. One of those six, the Solomon Islands, will decide by the end of September if it will endorse China’s point of view on Taiwan.
China’s active courting of the region rings alarm bells in Australia, which — despite differences with its island neighbors over climate change, immigration programs and its handling of refugees — regards itself as the South Pacific’s natural leader and is by far the region’s biggest aid donor.
Morrison, whose devout Christianity and love of sports plays well in the region, has responded to the Chinese forays with what he calls Australia’s Pacific “step-up,” including a new 2 billion Australian dollar infrastructure financing facility and five new diplomatic missions in a region that is home to about 15 million people spread over 20 million square kilometers (about 7.7 million square miles) of blue Pacific waters.
China already has a significant presence in the Pacific, with its footprint visible everywhere in the region, says Jonathan Pryke, director of the Pacific Islands program at the Lowy Institute policy think tank in Sydney. Despite China’s accelerated activity, it is far from being the dominant presence, and Australia was still the primary partner for most Pacific nations in terms of aid, trade, investment and societal links, he says.
Australia Opens Purse Strings for Pacific Projects
Since 2011, Australia has given $6.6 billion of aid to the Pacific region, including $3 billion to Papua New Guinea alone, according to an analysis by the Lowy Institute. It assessed China’s cumulative regional aid from 2006 to June 2016 as $1.78 billion, with PNG the biggest recipient at $632 million, followed by Fiji $360 million. One key point of difference is that China’s aid is 80% concessional loans and 20% grants, whereas Australia’s aid is mainly in grants.
Since replacing Malcolm Turnbull as prime minister last year, Morrison has taken every opportunity to position Australia as a natural part of the “Pacific family” that includes New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Samoa, Tonga, some small island communities and various territories belonging to France, the United Kingdom, the United States and New Zealand. Morrison says the Pacific is now “front and center” of Australia’s strategic outlook.
Morrison visited Fiji and Vanuatu in January this year, and on Wednesday will attend the region’s premier gathering, the Pacific Islands Forum leaders meeting, in Tuvalu. He hosted a visit by Papua New Guinea’s new Prime Minister James Marape in July, marking the occasion with awarding 250 million Australian dollars for electricity projects in PNG.
At last November’s meeting of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation group in the PNG capital Port Moresby, Australia joined New Zealand, Japan and the U.S. in pledging to help roll out power and internet connections to 70% of PNG’s 8 million people by 2030. Separately, the U.S. and Australia have agreed to help PNG redevelop its Manus Island naval base, which commands key trade routes into the Pacific.
Morrison’s first overseas visit after his re-election in May was to the Solomon Islands, the scene of Australia’s longest Pacific aid effort from 2003 to 2017, when Australia funded and led a 15-nation peacekeeping operation there in response to violent riots.
Pryke notes the Pacific islands had “a pretty bad run” both during World War II and postwar nuclear testing, so its leaders were pacifist and had no interest in militarism. While there were “a lot of legacy issues to overcome,” particularly with immigration, Morrison’s 2018 election ushered in a new era of Pacific engagement for Australia, Pryke says.
Migration, Climate Change Sources of Tension in Region
Morrison, a Pentecostal Christian, is the most overtly religious Australian prime minister of the postwar era. His faith and his past private visits to churches in Fiji and elsewhere resonates with the strongly religious Pacific nations. He is also a big sports fan, particularly of the two football codes popular in the Pacific — Rugby Union and Rugby League.
“Everything in Papua New Guinea starts with a prayer, and Rugby League there is like a second religion,” Pryke says. “It certainly can’t hurt to have a prime minister involved so passionately in these activities.”
While Morrison’s more visible role had generally been well received in the region, tensions remained, with the biggest source of friction being the barriers Australia puts up to people from the Pacific migrating to Australia. About 200,000 people — or 0.8% of Australia’s 25 million population — have a Pacific islands background, compared with about 7% in New Zealand (20% when the Maori population is taken into account).
Australian National University foreign policy expert James Batley, a former Australian diplomat in the Pacific, says the question of Australian refugee detention centers is important in Papua New Guinea, but was not an issue in places such as the Solomons or Vanuatu. He says Australia’s climate change stance was probably the biggest irritant for the nations of the Pacific, where the threat of rising sea levels is seen as existential.
Jason Young, director of the New Zealand Contemporary China Research Centre at Victoria University of Wellington, agreed, saying that Australia, along with New Zealand, “would do well to listen more to the concerns and interests of the Pacific and to stand with them on issues like climate change.”
Morrison’s increased activity emphasizes Australia’s extensive and longstanding links with the Pacific in education, sports, business, religion, culture, security, disaster relief and judicial help. He has committed to an Australia Pacific Security College in Fiji, and a Pacific Fusion Center in the region to counter illegal fishing, drug trafficking and people smuggling. He has also recently expanded job opportunities for Pacific Islander seasonal workers.
ANU’s Batley says Australia has never had a prime minister engage with the region with so much intensity. “He is saying to his ministers and to the Australian public service that the Pacific is a priority.”
More from U.S. News
Australian Leader Steps Up Country’s Activity Across the Pacific originally appeared on usnews.com