The only major antagonistic relations in the Indo-Pacific mega-region were between China and each of India, Japan and the USA individually. This was the reason these three countries, along with Australia, formed the Quadrilateral in order to counter Chinese growing influence in the overlapping mega-regions of Asia Pacific, Indo-Pacific and Indian Oceanic Region.
Although until recently Australia had a little role to play in this emergent Indo-Pacific conflict, the growing divergence between Australia and China in the South Pacific, a region that falls within the Indo-Pacific mega-region, are pushing Australia and China towards rivalry.
A substantial part of the resource-rich Pacific Ocean, particularly the South Pacific, falls within the control of the small Pacific island nations. Given China’s recent lending record and the financial vulnerabilities of these small island nations, Australia and the Western countries fear that these island nations might be entrapped into Chinese debt trap.
Worth noting that China has already become a major donor to the region, only second to Australia. Since 2011, China has provided concessionary loans and gifts to the region worth over $1 (one) billion, a not-so-significant amount for many regions but significant enough for South Pacific.
What Chinese debt to Sri Lanka has brought-about has become a widely used example for many experts and think tanks in the South Pacific region. Sri Lanka had to handover a deep seaport in Hambantota to the Chinese control for 99 years because of Sri Lanka’s lack of financial ability to pay-off the debts owed to China. Since the start of its operation in 2010, this Chinese-built US$1.5 billion Sri Lankan seaport was incurring losses because of the lack of commercial activity.
China is showering many countries with loans on various projects, some of which (such as the aforesaid Sri Lankan seaport) are alleged to have no financial viability. Such Chinese lending on the financially non-viable projects allegedly make the host countries economically and politically beholden to China. Australia fears that with Chinese loans, this is what’s going to happen to the Pacific nations, which are geographically located on its doorstep.
Chinese influence in the region has deepened to such extent that some regional countries, including Papua New Guinea, have even shown interest in the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’, a strategic venture of Chinese President Xi Jinping designed to make China the dominant geopolitical player in Asia and Europe.
Amid growing Chinese influence on its doorstep, Australia too has decided to increase its focus on the region and has been growing its engagements in the Pacific island nations in order to counter Chinese influence.
Late last year, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison talked, at a military base in Queensland, about the importance of the Pacific region to Australia. “This is our patch, this is our part of the world,” said Morrison. This was perhaps a clear message to China that it must check its growing involvement in the region, which is sort of Australia’s backyard.
Morrison recently offered to provide the regional countries with infrastructure loans and grants of over $2 (two) billion in an attempt to counter Chinese investment on Australia’s doorstep.
Morrison is also expected to offer an extra $1 (one) billion to Efic, Australia’s export credit agency, in order to help the Australian companies invest and expand overseas, particularly in the Pacific island nations.
In the aforesaid speech at the military base in Queensland, Morrison said that Australia would post diplomatic staffs to the region, including Palau, the Marshall Islands, French Polynesia, Niue and the Cook Islands in order to expand Australian regional presence.
Australia is also seeking to strengthen its defense ties with the Pacific island nations. Joint military drills as well as military training are on the cards. Morrison already announced in November 2018 that his country has established a defense force in order to train the Pacific island nations in infantry fighting, peacekeeping and disaster response.
What’s more, Australian Navy is expected to conduct more missions to the Pacific for training and exercises, and Australia will give some regional countries several new patrol boats.
Although Australia and China are the two major rival stakeholders in the South Pacific, the relations between these two countries cannot merely be viewed from what happens in the South Pacific region alone. Instead, the developing geopolitical scenarios in the overlapping mega-regions of Asia Pacific, Indo-Pacific and Indian Oceanic Region too impact the bilateral relations. The geopolitics in these overlapping mega-regions and the South Pacific together would dictate the relations between the two — something that hints towards rivalry, not cooperation.A
Originally written and edited by Bahauddin Foizee, he is an international affairs analyst & columnist, focusing mainly on the geopolitical trends and events taking place in the overlapping mega-regions of Asia-Pacific, Indo-Pacific and Indian Oceanic Region as well as in the greater Middle East. Connect Over : Twitter / Linkedin
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