Chinese military base in the Pacific near Australia could soon be a reality if Canberra and her allies do not take urgent measures. With the aim of developing a military base in the Pacific near Australia, the Chinese government have gone all out to woo the tiny, impoverished Pacific island nations.
As per experts, hiding behind the COVID-19 pandemic, the Chinese have left no stone unturned to charm the Pacific Island nations which neighbour Australia. A mere thought of having a Chinese military base near Australia, which looks quite possible, should send shivers across the US.
Australia has been an all-weather partner for most countries in the Pacific region. Their proximity to countries like Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Solomon Islands etc and ability to financially assist them have helped the ‘Kangaroos’ maintain a sphere of influence in the region.
But the Chinese, as in the other parts of the world, are going all out on their charm offensive to wrest control of the region using coronavirus aid as a smokescreen.
As the pacific island nations are already dealing with severe and acute diseases, such as dengue, malaria, tuberculosis and diabetes, they will not be able to deal with the deadly pandemic and that is where Beijing sees an opportunity.
Even if COVID-19 does not hit them hard as it has the rest of the world, their economy could be crippled. Countries in the Pacific are heavily dependent on tourism, aid and investment from abroad but all this has come to a standstill in the recent weeks.
The most tourism-dependent economies are Fiji (where tourism comprises 17% of GDP), Samoa (23%), Vanuatu (40%), the Cook Islands (73%) and Tonga (10%), according to ANZ research and official figures.
Budgets across the Pacific will be ruined and a large proportion of the population will lose their jobs. The Pacific islands will need significant fiscal injections to keep their economies afloat, and fast, which is where the geopolitical rivalry comes in.
Chinese actions have been prompt in tackling the pandemic in the Pacific region. It has literally gone from being the problem to presenting the solution.
In early March, when it was itself reeling from the pandemic, Beijing convened a video conference with most of the ministers from Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands advising them on beating the deadly pandemic.
At the same time, Beijing also created the China-Pacific Island Countries anti-COVID-19 Cooperation Fund. The Fund, worth $1.9 million, has provided Pacific island states with finances to purchase medical equipment from Chinese companies.
Chinese officials posted in the Pacific islands have not missed any publicity opportunity as they posed for pictures with big cheques and ministers from different nations.
The lacklustre healthcare system, lack of masks, ventilator, medical equipment and testing kits have given China another opening to make inroads into the Pacific. China has also offered test kits and medical supplies to Vanuatu, Tonga and French Polynesia, $300,000 in cash to the Solomon Islands to buy equipment.
The Chinese government also handed over $4.3 million in cash and medical supplies to Fiji and donated US$100,000 to Vanuatu and US$200,000 to Tonga towards COVID-19 preparedness.
A strong Chinese presence in PNG is a major concern to Australia and her Western allies. Separated by a distance of just five kilometres, PNG is a nation of 10 million people incredibly vulnerable to Covid-19 due to high rates of poverty, poor nutrition and pre-existing health conditions.
Stronger links with the Pacific Island countries and PNG, in particular, could lead to the Chinese creating a military base in the region.
China came close in 2018 as it discussed co-developing four major ports and eventually a military base in Papua New Guinea, including at Lombrum Naval Base on Manus Island. However, the talks fell through and PNG partnered with Australia instead to redevelop the base itself.
While it was possible to negotiate with PNG earlier, a post coronavirus world with devastated economies of Pacific countries eager for aid and assistance, there is a possibility that they could turn to China and fall prey to their debt-trap strategy.
A Chinese military base in the pacific is not a declaration of war by any means but just the physical presence can have a psychological impact on Australia, lead to a military buildup in the region and confirm the real intentions of China behind its soft-power moves.
It will also send a message to the allies including the US about the changing world and serve a direct challenge to US hegemony.
The latest Chinese action in the pacific island region is not new. In fact, China has stepped up its diplomatic efforts in the region and used economic statecraft to win the support of these countries since the turn of the century.
It worked as twin strike as they gained official recognition from countries in the Pacific and at the same reduced Taiwanese diplomatic recognition. But it’s not just Chinese efforts that have contributed to increased presence in the region.
Equally responsible are the United States and Australia for China’s rise. Washington has been dormant and not taken any concrete action in the region. While aid and trade have been the preferred avenues for engagement, the capacity and resourcing problems associated with the Obama administration’s “Asia Rebalance” have had an impact on security engagement with the region.
Obama’s successor Donald Trump understood the importance of the region but did not offer any concrete solution. The 2017 National Defense Strategy does not mention the region at all, while the Indo-Pacific Strategy did not provide long-term blueprints for addressing the region’s strategic challenges either.
Australia has cut health aid to the Pacific by 10% over the last five years. In some nations, it has been much more severe. Health assistance to Fiji has been cut by 22%, Samoa 36%, Solomon Islands 13% and Tuvalu by 75%. This has led the Island nations to look for other sources of income and naturally turned their heads towards China.
Just like the spread of the virus has provided China with an opportunity to increase its foothold in the Pacific, Australia and its allies also have an opportunity to counter Beijing.
A revision of Australia’s Pacific step-up policy post-COVID-19 could spearhead the response to China’s growing influence in the region. Many countries all over the globe have stepped up anti-China rhetoric for Beijing’s mismanagement and not sharing information about the deadly virus.
Restarting the AU $2 billion Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific (AIFFP), which was supposed to be launched before the pandemic started, would be another positive step and reaffirm the commitment of Australia towards pacific countries.
The US needs to wake up too and support Australia. In the recent G-20 summit, Australian PM Scott Morrison urged for the same and called the Pacific our ‘family’.’’
Australia is assisting Pacific Island governments with laboratories, medical equipment, health expertise, public information campaigns and support for national preparedness plans and the World Health Organization’s regional plan, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne had stated.
The pandemic has brought back the pacific region into the spotlight once again. The last time it was in this position was during WWII as the Axis and Allied powers fought each other for controlling the region. 75 years later the stakes remain same, but Australians and her allies have their work cut out.
OpEd By Jonathan Pryke & Richar Mcgregor for Nikkei Asian Review and Armaan Srivastava for The EurAsian Times