Australia launches ‘counter-offensive’ against China as two nations vie for cake

The Pacific region has become a new battleground between China and Australia. Even as China’s foreign minister wrapped up a 10-day tour of the Pacific, Australia’s new foreign minister, Penny Wong, launched a diplomatic counteroffensive, setting the stage for more heated competition in the days to come. come.

During his 10-day tour, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Samoa, Fiji, Vanuatu, Kiribati, Tonga, Papua New Guinea and East Timor.

The visit was the latest in a growing geopolitical contest aimed at wooing Pacific Island Nations (PICs) and expanding China’s influence in the region.

The Chinese diplomatic tour came more than a month after a security deal was signed with the Solomon Islands, raising fears of a Chinese military base just over 2,000 kilometers from Australia.

In addition, there was widespread speculation that China was negotiating a similar deal with the island of Kiribati, which lies close to the US territory of Hawaii, as previously noted by the EurAsian Times.

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare and Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi (via Twitter)

It has also been reported that China is seeking to dislodge the current status quo, allowing Australia to wield the most influence in the region. In this context, Wong launched a “peaceful blitz” to counter China’s peaceful march.

Focusing on tackling China’s growing presence in its traditional sphere of influence, Wong visited three Pacific island nations less than two weeks after taking office.

While Labor has traditionally been known to be warmer to Beijing, new geopolitical realities indicate that Canberra’s policies will be guided by its security and self-preservation needs. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Wong were sworn in shortly after the election to attend the Quad Summit in Japan.

Tug of war China, Australia

During his recent visit to the Solomon Islands as part of the Pacific tour, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi engaged at a meticulously planned press conference in Honiara. He said Beijing had “no intention” of establishing a military base in the Pacific country while reaffirming the rock-solid relationship with the island state.

Despite Wang’s refusal to have a military base in the Solomon Islands, a shroud of secrecy and opacity surrounding specific Chinese plans – exacerbated by limitations on the press reporting his time in Honiara – has meant that doubts linger. on exact plans.

China has been the region’s second largest lender since 2009, investing a total of $169 million in loans and grants. Unlike the United States and Australia, or international institutions such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (ADB), Beijing rarely ties its aid to economic and governance changes.

In addition, the loans also provide Beijing with leverage on one of the world’s most contentious issues: recognition of Taiwan, which has strong diplomatic ties with the region.

According to a Reuters (2018) study of the financial books of 11 South Pacific island governments, China’s lending initiatives have grown from near zero to over $1.3 billion over the past decade.

China’s expansion into the Pacific region, at the expense of Australia and the United States, would thus roll over the plank of massive capital. China has taken its funding from the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to develop Pacific states. However, China’s growing influence would eventually dislodge Canberra from its position as the region’s big brother.

Australia’s ‘diplomatic blitzkrieg’ with Wong covering the ground could then be viewed in light of the emergency facing the region. For example, during the volcanic disaster that struck Tonga earlier this year, China and Australia competed to be the largest and most reliable relief providers to the stricken island.

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Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong with Tongan King Tupou VI (via Twitter)

At a joint press conference with Tongan Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni in Tonga on Friday, Wong highlighted Australia’s plans to engage more with those countries, Nikkei Asia reported.

“We were elected with a very clear position that we were going to put more energy and more resources, bring new energy and more resources to our relationship with the Pacific,” she said.

Wong also spoke about tackling climate change, which is a major concern for island nations that are at risk of flooding from rising sea levels.

Before heading to Tonga, Wong traveled to Fiji directly after attending the Quad Summit in Tokyo. Then she traveled to Samoa, where she met Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mata’afa and offered to provide the country with a new patrol boat.

Meanwhile, during his Pacific tour, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang held a virtual meeting with colleagues from a dozen Pacific island states in Fiji earlier this week to discuss a broad deal regional on trade and security. However, no agreement was signed due to objections from at least one country: the Federated States of Micronesia, which rely on the United States for their defense.

In a rebuttal to China’s economic and security partnership plan, Wong said in an interview with Australian public broadcaster ABC that Canberra would oppose China’s desire to cooperate on security.

“We believe that regional security is the responsibility of the entire Pacific family, of which we are a part, and that is the approach we take, and that is the approach that many Pacific island countries are reinforcing in their responses to us,” she said. said.

Asked about China’s military expansion plans in the region, the foreign minister said, “Listen, China is much more active in this region. We know that China is much more assertive in the world and in the wider Indo-Pacific region. We know that. So I think it’s important to not just focus on what China does, but to focus on what we do and how we work most closely with Pacific island nations.

During his trip, Wong will travel to Indonesia on Sunday with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese to meet with President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo.

Indonesia is an important neighbor due to its proximity to Australia and its fast growing economy. Jakarta’s differences with China and its role in Indo-Pacific politics make it an ideal state for bilateral cooperation.

China’s diplomatic effort, particularly on Pacific security, has alarmed some island nations as well as Canberra and Washington.

Australia is building nuclear submarines in cooperation with the United States and the United Kingdom under the AUKUS pact signed last year. The fighting between the Chinese and Australian military, including the incident of laser shooting at an Australian reconnaissance plane, made matters worse.

China’s economic power and enormous capital funding has often resulted in massive flows of money to small but strategically located countries. If these countries fail, China gains a foothold in the region. It has long been accused of “debt traps” by its detractors, particularly in Sri Lanka and Pakistan. There are fears that a similar policy could be used by Beijing in the Pacific, allowing it to set up military bases in the region.

With Western military assets dominating the Pacific region and the centrality of the region to Washington and Canberra for their security, it would be imperative for them to preserve the region from Chinese influence. The fight has only just begun.

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