Australia likes the US

Tensions in the South Seas : How Australia and China are fighting for influence in the South Pacific

One picture may be enough to reveal a lot about Chinese politics in the South Pacific. One of these pictures was taken at the end of August when China's ambassador to the island republic of Kiribati was photographed walking over the backs of a group of residents. What was part of a welcoming ceremony also shows the importance that China has long attached to the island states in the South Pacific - and what influence Beijing has there. For years, China has been pursuing foreign policy with the wallet, granting cheap loans and investing in local infrastructure.

Between 2011 and 2019, 1.62 billion US dollars flowed from Beijing to the island states. Two of them, Kiribati and the Solomon Islands, most recently gave up diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Another, Vanuatu, made headlines in Australia in 2018 when it was said that China was building a military port there. Tensions in the region are growing.

While the dispute over borders and resources off China's coast is being closely followed in Europe, Beijing is expanding its influence in the South Pacific largely unnoticed. In Australia and New Zealand, however, developments are viewed with suspicion. "In both countries, China's advance is seen as a threat," said Patrick Köllner, researcher at the German Institute of Global and Areas Studies in Hamburg, the Tagesspiegel. He also says: "The pandemic is accelerating competition in the region." The huge but sparsely populated world region between Indonesia and Kiribati is increasingly becoming a geopolitical plaything.

Tensions between states are growing

Until the outbreak of the pandemic, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison paid little attention to diplomacy. "Covid-19 has shown that our international order is more important than ever," he said recently, his Foreign Minister Marise Payne. In a phase in which the US under Trump is no longer assuming its international responsibility, Australia definitely does not want to fall into a world order shaped by China.

In connection with a cyber attack on political and financial organizations, Morrison recently spoke of the fact that a “highly developed state cyber actor” was behind it - the statement was clearly addressed. The fact that the last two accredited Australian journalists had to leave China this week is adding to tensions.

Morrison does not want to stand idly by as Beijing continues to expand its influence in the region. Most recently, he announced spending billions for the military and also investing New Zealand. In June, Australia and India signed an agreement giving them mutual access to military bases. "The interest is clearly security policy, because the agreements also serve to contain China," says Köllner. The Quad Forum, an association between Australia, India, Japan and the USA, will also gain in importance.

Australia remains the largest donor in the region

But the South Pacific archipelagos are no less important to Australia. Just like China, Australia has been supplying states with medical supplies since the beginning of the pandemic. The Australian government has just increased its development aid for the region to around 1.4 billion Australian dollars, writes Köllner in a recent paper, and the country is building an Internet cable from it to Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. Several billions were raised for infrastructure projects and securing export credits.

The government of New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has also increased its development aid for the region in recent years. “However, Australia will remain the largest donor to the region, providing around 45 percent of the total official development aid achieved there,” says Köllner. "However, Australia's credibility in the region has its limits."

What Köllner addresses has a lot to do with Australia's climate policy. Morrison, who brought a chunk of coal to Parliament in 2017 to promote the export of the raw material, is not considered a fighter against climate change. For a long time, the prime minister found it difficult to even see the record heat and the massive bush fires at the beginning of the year as a result of climate change.

"In any case, climate policy is a mortgage"

The economically weak island states further north are more threatened by climate change simply from rising sea levels. Australia's coal policy does not create trust. "The government's climate policy is definitely a mortgage," says Köllner. In New Zealand, however, no security policy document has been published since 2018 without reference to climate change. Köllner also says: "The interest from China is wonderful for the island states." It gives them options and makes them more independent.

Unlike Australian and New Zealand money, Chinese money doesn't come with teachings about democracy either. If you break with Taiwan in favor of China, if in doubt, opt for the greater economic potential - the resulting dependencies are not always immediately noticeable. Australia and New Zealand also find it difficult to be on an equal footing. “A strong exchange between governments and NGOs can help to improve understanding of the region. But that is not a substitute for an exchange on an equal footing, ”says Köllner.

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