During a brief interview on the sidelines of Prince Charles’ visit to Vanuatu, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop left the door open to greater engagement with China in the Pacific, and between Australia and Melanesian countries.
The Minister was asked to comment by the Daily Post on the tit-for-tat rhetoric that has been flying between Beijing and Canberra over which country is the ‘best friend’ to the Pacific, and whether there were opportunities for China/Australia partnership in infrastructure investment.
In an apparent repudiation of critical remarks made by her cabinet colleagues, Ms Bishop rejected the characterisation, adding, “We welcome further investment here in the Pacific from countries around the world. There’s a great need for more infrastructure spending in the Pacific, and Australia and New Zealand and other traditional donors here are welcoming new investment.
“What we don’t want to see is vulnerable economies burdened with too much debt. What we do want to see is positive, productivity-enhancing infrastructure.”
She insisted that China and Australia had already successfully co-funded a malaria reduction project in Papua New Guinea. “I think that’s the beginning of the kind of partnership we will see throughout the Pacific. It’s in the interest of the Pacific island nations for there to be more infrastructure investment.”
Asked if she expected to see more partnership investment like this in the future, she replied, “Absolutely. The World Bank and the Asian Development Bank have made it quite clear that there’s a chronic shortage of investment in infrastructure in the Pacific.”
She went on to describe one project already under way. “Australia, for example, is building an undersea cable for PNG and Solomon Islands. We’re providing significant infrastructure in the Pacific, but so are other countries: China, Japan, the United Kingdom.”
She pointed out that Vila Central Hospital, where the interview was being conducted, was in fact originally built by the UK, and subsequently rebuilt by Australia following the devastation wrought by cyclone Pam in 2015. Japan also invested approximately VT2 billion in a massive hospital expansion, which opened in 2014.
Ms Bishop’s rhetorical line is much more accommodating than comments from her colleague, the Minister for International Development and the Pacific Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, who in January accused China of building ‘roads that go nowhere’.
This resulted in a number of news and opinion pieces from China and Australia, asserting the merits of their respective contributions and seeking opportunities to downplay or criticise the other.
Last week, the China Matters blog, a non-profit policy think-tank, published a policy paper suggesting that Chinese overseas development aid “is fragmented, poorly monitored, project-based and contractor-driven, responsive largely to the needs of political elites in the Pacific.”
The paper downplays concerns that Australia may be losing its strategic advantage in the Pacific. “Concerns about Australia’s loss of influence in the Pacific are misguided when they focus solely on aid. Australia is the largest donor in the Pacific by a wide margin, with historical ties that the PRC does not have.”
Nonetheless, it highlights numerous areas for engagement between the regional heavyweights. First among them the malaria reduction project cited by Ms Bishop in her interview.
It goes much further in its recommendations than the foreign minister was willing to venture, however. The paper, authored by Australian National University professor Graeme Smith, suggests engagement at the consular level in Pacific countries, and suggests that China and Australia could cooperate on a diverse range of areas, including scholarships, agrictultural extension, medicinal care, as well as sector-specific work in the transport and energy sectors.
Notably, it suggests that climate change mitigation and adaptation would be fruitful ground for the two countries to “work together in developing practical and scientifically grounded approaches.”
Ms Bishop also didn’t shut the door on participation in the Melanesian Spearhead Group. Asked by the AFP why Australia, with a substantial Melanesian population of its own, had yet to join the group, she suggested that the Pacific Islands Forum provided her nation’s primary means of multilateral engagement.
“If we were invited to join other groups, we would of course consider it, but we are working very effectively [already]. The Pacific is a foreign policy priority for Australia. Most of our aid—most of our AU$4 billion in overseas development assistance—is invested here in the Pacific.”