Australia wants to take steps to reduce the growing Chinese influence over many of the Asia Pacific nations and has announced that it will be launching funds of its own to try and counter what it perceives as an increasing threat.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison is looking to give Australia a greater hold in the region while also allowing his ministers to engage in increased cooperation with China.
Morrison had yet to make any serious speeches about foreign policy since succeeding Malcolm Turnbull back in August, but he has now taken the opportunity to declare the Pacific ‘our patch’ and ‘our part of the world,’ hitting back at China making many inroads and new trade routes globally.
The plan is for Australia to have a much larger diplomatic presence in many of the Asia-Pacific nations, including the Cook and Marshall Islands, Palau, French Polynesia and Niue.
As well as sending resources and staffing embassies, Australia will also have a concerted military presence as it undergoes joint training with the nations listed above in the hopes of developing stronger ties that are more resistant to the lure of China.
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There has been strong concern that China has increased the amount of capital that it pours into such places, as it is the second-largest Pacific donor after Australia. In this decade, it has already funded over $1.3bn in gifts and concessionary loans.
China’s response has been clear in that it values economic cooperation with Australia very highly. It invited Foreign Minister Marise Payne for her first visit to Beijing during the Morrison era. Her appearance alongside top Chinese diplomat and State Councilor Wang Yi underlines China’s serious intent to smooth over some choppy waters and bring both countries to agreement.
Yi responded to the news of Australia’s Pacific plan by saying: ‘We are not rivals, and we can absolutely become cooperation partners.’
Adding that there is no need for the two nations to disagree on Pacific strategy, Yi called for conciliation and suggested the possibility of trilateral agreements with the Pacific nations in question.
Payne later said in her own statement that the talks were ‘valuable, full and candid’ and added that ‘in a relationship as dynamic as ours…there will be from time to time differences.’
She said that the two countries’ responses to their differences is about ‘managing them respectfully, mindful of the tremendous opportunities the relationship presents to both our nations.’
This marks an odd point in the relationship between Australia and China. Under Turnbull’s administration, ties became increasingly frosty, with Turnbull accusing Chinese President Xi Jinping’s government of orchestrating an intervention in its foreign policy. Australia has since blocked telecommunications company Huawei from installing its 5G data lines in the country.
With Morrison going on a similar offensive, China has taken a different tack and hopes that efforts to bring the two countries together on certain issues will at least provide some stability in the region.
The Pacific region has become of significant strategic importance in recent years, and China has tried to extend its route into the South China Sea even further with its claimed acquisition of the Spratly Islands, just off the Philippines, which remains disputed.