Vanuatu attracted headlines in 2018 amidst speculation that a Chinese-funded wharf had been developed with the option of converting it to military use. More persistent concerns have been expressed about the local authorities’ willingness to follow Beijing’s lead in its approach to local media freedoms.
A Vanuatu-based journalist was barred from re-entering the country in 2019 after reporting on the secret deportation of Chinese citizens escorted by the Chinese police. Meanwhile, media executives and journalists are courted assiduously by the Chinese authorities, who put public outlets under significant pressure to carry content. This pattern is reproduced elsewhere in the region.
The “information war” underway in the Pacific is essentially a battle between two value systems, and it deserves serious attention from any incoming Australian government.
China has reportedly spent about $9 billion since 2009 strengthening its worldwide media presence. It assumed control of Radio Australia’s Pacific shortwave frequencies when the ABC service was shut down in 2017. China’s national television service is steadily expanding its broadcasting services across the region and Australia’s equivalent, the ABC Australia service, is described by many as a sadly depleted version of what it once was.
Papua New Guinea, the largest country in the region, has been heavy going for China. Its business interests have been frustrated as they have tried to build influence among the political elite, and Australia has managed to counter its campaign to control the sensitive telecommunications sector. China is a relatively small donor and lender in PNG. But the ever-widening expectation gap between the national government and the people of Bougainville about their troubled region’s future status could lead to tensions that might be manipulated by China. A scenario in which Bougainville lost patience and declared independence could create significant opportunities.
Australia’s rich network of links across the Pacific provide a firm basis to work on, but if there is one lesson from the agreement between Honiara and Beijing, it is to avoid becoming self-satisfied.
Until recently there was almost a sense that Australia’s position in the Solomon Islands was unassailable – it had, after all, led the highly successful regional assistance mission to stabilise the country following the conflict of the early 2000s, and was the first to be called on to help when violence returned to the country last year. The scale of Australia’s grant aid dwarfs that of any other, including China’s – just as it does across the rest of the region.
But aid programs do not buy influence – that comes only with the patient nurturing of relationships and trust. And to focus on the size of Australia’s development assistance is to ignore these countries’ aspirations. Most Pacific governments would rather focus on economic integration and market access in talking about the relationship with Australia – areas where they feel they can be on more of an equal footing.
Equally, Australia should not convince itself that, with the comparatively significant resources it deploys in the region, it should try to do this on its own. Success will require an even more integrated approach with like-minded allies including Japan, the United States and even France, and it will need to draw on the voices of the several Pacific countries that share Australia’s concerns. Many regional leaders understand that there are dangers for their fragile nations in Beijing’s hunger for resources, its growing military engagement across the region, and the scale of its lending patterns.
In all this, Australia will also need to work harder to avoid the impression that its focus on the region has been motivated only by an impulse to counter China’s reach. There have been some mis-steps here. Several regional figures expressed concern after the AUKUS announcement about what they saw as a lack of forewarning and the impact of growing strategic competition.
The easiest way of convincing the Pacific that Australia really cares is by signalling clearly its concerns about climate change. The Pacific countries could not have made it any more clear that this is what they see as their overriding, existential challenge. The coalition government’s measures to support climate change resilience and renewable energy projects in the region have been drowned out by an entrenched regional view that Australia is a laggard on this issue.
Ian Kemish is a former Australian High Commissioner to PNG.