April 26, 2018 15
Earlier this month Fairfax media ran a story as a major exclusive, claiming that China was negotiating with Vanuatu to establish a naval base at the Vanuatu Port of Luganville. The story was unsourced. That in itself raised a serious question about the bona fides of whoever fed the story to the Fairfax journalist.
That suspicion grew when both the Prime Minister of Vanuatu Charlot Salwai and the foreign minister Ralph Regenvanu both categorically denied the story. The Chinese government similarly issued a denial that there were not any such negotiations going on.
That did not stop both Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop making pronouncements that the militarization of the Pacific was unacceptable. According to an ABC report (10 April 2018) Turnbull “warned” Vanuatu against any moves to allow a great Chinese military presence in the Pacific nation. “We would view with great concern the establishment of any foreign military bases in those Pacific islands countries and neighbours of ours”he was reported as saying.
Labor’s foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong was quoted as saying “militarization and competition in the region is not something that is conducive to the stable and prosperous region that we want.”
This follows an allegation by international development Minister Concetta Ferravanti-Wells in January 2018 that China was funding “useless infrastructure projects”. She accused China of funding “roads to nowhere” and “useless buildings.” Ferravanti Wells’ comments were made against a backdrop of $11 billion of foreign aid cuts since the Coalition came to power in 2013.
The Australian government is reported to be concerned that the Chinese are using “soft” loans to create a debt trap for poor Pacific Island nations that will lead then to supporting Beijing’s stance on wider geopolitical issues.
When one looks at the facts however, a rather different picture emerges.
First, the question of “soft loans.” It is correct that’s the interest rate charged on Chinese sourced loans is lower than that by non-Chinese banks and institutions such as the IMF. If there is a “debt trap” it has risen more frequently and more drastically from IMF loans then it ever has from China.
Secondly, is Chinese influence through the financing of aid projects in the Pacific actually so great? According to an analysis published by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco by Sam Creehan (www.frbsf.org12 October 2017) China’s Development Bank ranked number 10 in the Asia-Pacific region and the Bank of China ranked number 13 as the source of infrastructure funding. Japan’s three largest banks by comparison funded five times the amount of the five biggest Chinese banks in that year.
We do not hear a word of criticism of this latest version of the greater East Asian co-prosperity sphere, presumably because Japan is treated as an ally. It is also one of the so-called “Quad” nations (along with Australia, India and the United States) that has been disinterred this year in what is plainly a variation on Obama’s “pivot to Asia”, also known as the China “containment” policy.
Thirdly, what exactly do Turnbull, Bishop and Wong mean when they decry the “establishment of foreign military bases in the Pacific?”Presumably they have some notion of “foreign” that excludes the United States. Turnbull has to look no further then his own backyard. According to at least one study (www.ant-bases.org) there are 34 US military facilities in Australia alone. The better known ones include Pine Gap (NT), Darwin (NT) Geraldton (WA) Stirling (WA) and Shoalwater Bay (Qld.)
In addition the United States has other Asia-Pacific military bases, notably in American Samoa, Guam, South Korea and Japan.
Its nuclear armed vessels patrol such geopolitically sensitive areas is the East and South China Seas, the Malacca Straits (with Australian warships in Operation Talisman Sabre) and elsewhere. How is it that a non-existent Chinese base in Vanuatu is a threat to the peace and stability of the Pacific, but the military actions of Australia and its allies in waters regarded as legitimate areas of national interest by China is not a provocation and a threat?
The answer probably lies in the presumptions Australia brings to its region and its neighbours. Turnbull has no right to “warn” Vanuatu’s prime minister about what Vanuatu as a sovereign nation may or may not do in what it perceives as its national interest.
Vanuatu was the subject of similar ill-informed criticism in the 1980s when Father Walter Lini was seen as threatening to turn Vanuatu into another Cuba because he had the temerity to join with New Zealand’s David Lange in seeking a nuclear free Pacific.
The Pacific countries face significant infrastructure challenges as the Asian Development Bank pointed out last year (www.adb.org12 April 2017). Their populations are small and often isolated. Only 30% of their populations have access to electricity. Of 700 airstrips in the Pacific region, only 7% are paved. There are marked disparities between rural and urban dwellers in their access to the most basic facilities such as clean water and sanitation.
They are especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change with salination of arable land an increasing problem.
When rich countries like Australia cut their foreign aid budgets the consequences for small and poor Pacific island nations can be devastating. They are also subject to bullying, as for example with the Solomon Islands over their wish to let a contract to China’s Huawei Corporation to build their Internet infrastructure. That infrastructure will now be built by Australia. If the NBN project is any guide, the Solomon Islanders will end up with an overpriced and inferior product. It is hardly surprising that the leaders of small nations would turn to China, which has demonstrated an entirely different model of development assistance.
The neo-colonial mentality displayed by Australia in this latest China bashing episode is out of place in the 21st century. It is long past the time when Australia’s political leaders recognised the new realities.
* Barrister at Law and geopolitical analyst