Australia strives to resuscitate Pacific ties as China’s war influence grows
Too little, too late? Australia is striving to rekindle ties with the Pacific as China’s ambition to build a South Pacific fortress appears to be advancing.
Canberra opened embassies in the Marshall Islands and French Polynesia on Tuesday. This is part of a “Pacific Step-Up” policy designed to counter Beijing’s growing influence in our neighborhood.
But things are not going very well.
The People’s Republic of China (PRC) appears to be set to reactivate a strategic WWII airstrip on a small island in the heart of the South Pacific.
It’s a decision that potentially has huge implications.
Especially since a loose confederation of island nations, the 18-member Pacific Islands Forum, collapsed in disarray last year.
The stake is one of the last and largest healthy fishing grounds in the world. But Kiribati’s Kanton Atoll, with its twenty inhabitants and a former airstrip, also straddles the arterial shipping lanes between Australia and the United States.
And it’s not the only active Chinese project in the region.
“Australia has responded to the growing role of the PRC with growing alarm,” says John Bradford, director of the Yokosuka Council on Asia Pacific. “The prospect of the militarization of the region has potentially serious consequences.”
RELATED: Australia’s ‘Biggest Threat’ Since World War II
Kanton at the crossroads
Beijing’s desire to upgrade the coral atoll airstrip some 3,000 km southwest of Hawaii and 4,600 km northeast of Brisbane has been known for several years.
But news of any progress on the project has been lacking – until now.
Kiribati opposition MP Tessie Lambourne told Reuters earlier this week that she feared a deal had already been reached.
“The government has not shared the cost and other details other than a feasibility study for the rehabilitation of the runway and the bridge,” Ms. Lambourne said. “The opposition will ask the government for more information.”
RELATED: China ‘Already Engaging in War’
Neither the President of Kiribati, Taneti Maamau, nor the Beijing Foreign Ministry have yet responded publicly.
The nation of Kiribati is a collection of 32 atolls and coral islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It has only 120,000 citizens on just 800 square kilometers of land. Yet its exclusive economic zone is one of the largest in the world – covering over 3.5 million square kilometers.
It is a region rich in fish – especially tuna. The waters around Kanton Island itself are prohibited from commercial activity to protect spawning stocks. Only the inhabitants of the island can fish there.
But its central position is another important asset.
It was first used as an air stopover in 1939 for seaplanes traveling between Oceania and the United States. During World War II, an airfield was added to relay bombers and transport planes.
“The island would be a fixed aircraft carrier,” Reuters said quoting an unidentified Pacific government adviser.
Age of Empire
“There are compelling strategic reasons that push Beijing to the region,” says Bradford. “The PRC’s attention will have been drawn to the route across the South Pacific as an alternative to that through Southeast Asia increasingly contested for its energy supplies from the Gulf. But this new route would require protection with its own naval presence.
Rumors of attempts to establish naval facilities in Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands have been circulating for the past decade.
This is a prospect that worries Canberra.
The 2016 Defense White Paper warned: “Australia cannot be safe if our immediate neighborhood, including … the Pacific island countries, becomes a source of threat to Australia.”
The 2020 Defense Update went further. He assumed such a base would be built and called for the construction of a new Jindalee Over The Horizon radar system to monitor eastern approaches to Australia.
In the midst of all of this looms the specter of World War II. Blocking the main shipping routes between North America, Australia and New Zealand was the goal of the Japanese campaigns on the Coral Sea and the Guadalcanal.
“Today, China is working to control vital trans-Pacific maritime lines of communication under the guise of contributing to economic development and adaptation to climate change,” writes Steve Raaymaker for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
He sees the move to Kanton as part of a larger Chinese Pacific strategy: A $ 2 billion fish farm in the strategic Hao Atoll in French Polynesia is industrializing a “sufficiently large and deep lagoon.” to accommodate a whole naval fleet ”.
“The control of the Hao installation, as well as those proposed in Kiribati and elsewhere in the heart of the Pacific, represents a power projection capacity which exceeds by several orders of magnitude the old construction of the” three island chains “… and requires an urgent realignment of the strategic response, ”he said.
The people of Kiribati have their own concerns.
Rising sea levels are already proving a threat. Their low atolls face flooding before the turn of the century.
President Maamau is committed to preserving his island homes for as long as possible. And he wants to call on the engineering expertise of China’s man-made islands to do this.
“The Maamau government will deploy dredges to suck up large amounts of sand from the lagoon bottoms and dump it along the exposed coasts of the islands, not only for protection, but also to build more land for planting crops,” said an analysis from the University of the Sunshine Coast in 2020.
“It’s a bold move, given that China is aiming for military and economic expansion in the Pacific region, but Maamau insists on maintaining Kiribati’s independence.”
Beijing insists it has no military interest in the South Pacific. On the contrary, its growing presence is a natural consequence of its economic growth.
But not everyone is convinced of his benevolence.
“Many observers point to its thirst for resources, however, and believe its growing military engagement in the Pacific betrays a long-term goal of establishing a naval base there – an unthinkable outcome for Australia,” the editors warn. of USC.
The Chinese Communist Party’s Belt and Road Project places a strong emphasis on the acquisition and operation of maritime infrastructure. Regional examples include its establishment of Darwin Harbor, its presence in Asua in the Solomon Islands and Luganville in Vanuatu, and a billion dollar development project of a Torres Strait island in PNG as a hub. fishing.
“There is growing concern that (China) has, or could, use its investments to deny access to infrastructure to its rivals,” warned a US Navy policy document earlier this year.
Mr Bradford says this is a plausible scenario.
“To date, companies in the PRC have not openly denied access to others, but they create business models that benefit their partners over their business competitors.”
Beyond that, Beijing’s “military-civilian fusion” policy insists that any overseas facilities it builds must have “dual-use” capability – which essentially means that they must be able to accommodate China’s military assets.
But, says Bradford, these large port investments have so far been mainly used to exert political pressure.
“The PRC has openly used its geo-economic influence,” he said, “[such as] his [$8 billion] investments in Piraeus to persuade Greece to weaken EU statements denouncing the PRC’s human rights effort. There are also unconfirmed rumors that the PRC quietly used its influence to organize the denial of access to Japanese ships.
Such behavior could be a model for what to expect in the South Pacific.
Sparrows and the dragon
“Australia is right to be concerned about the motivations and activities of the PRC in the South Pacific,” says Bradford. “The introduction of rivalries between great powers in the region could destabilize part of the turbulent domestic politics at play in certain Pacific island countries… Continued [Chinese] migration is likely to lead to growing resentment among local populations, who believe Chinese migrants dominate local economies and businesses. “
It’s a troubling scenario that tacitly echoes Canberra’s decision to open more embassies.
“We continue to strengthen our cooperation in areas such as maritime security, infrastructure, climate change and women’s empowerment, as well as our support for the health response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the promotion of recovery economy of the region ”, a statement reads the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
But is it enough?
“While the Pacific Step-Up signals the importance of the region to Australia, in its current form it will fall short of its goal of preventing the growing influence of the PRC in the South Pacific,” says Michael Wesley in China Matters.
“Most Pacific Island leaders refuse to accept claims by Australia – as well as New Zealand and the United States – that the growing role of the PRC poses a threat to the region.”
Beijing is once again turning out to be its own worst enemy.
His diplomatic behavior as a “warrior-wolf” has put the populations of the South Pacific – and some politicians – at their wit’s end.
“The intimidation tactics of PRC diplomats at recent PIF (Pacific Islands Forum) and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summits have resonated widely across the region,” observes Wesley.
And there is often a significant difference between Beijing’s words and his actions.
“The PRC’s long-distance fishing fleets, its demands for unsustainable resources such as hardwood, and its status as the world’s largest carbon emitter are attributes that are deeply threatening,” he says.
But the Pacific Islands are tired of talking.
With rising water levels, the need for action becomes urgent.
“Australia has failed to convince the leaders of the Pacific Islands to reduce their cooperation with the PRC, allowing them to balance pressure from Australia and its allies,” Bradford said. “To maintain its influence in the South Pacific, Australia must listen to – and truly engage with – the region’s concerns, most pressing about climate change.”
This is a message taken up in Raaymaker’s ASPI article.
“For its own national security, Australia must more openly recognize climate change and the broader development concerns of Pacific island countries, and tailor its development assistance to address these concerns in a much more meaningful and concrete way. . “
Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel