Since Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison came to power a little over a year ago (starting at the end of August 2018 until today), Canberra has put in a lot of effort into restoring its position in the South Pacific, which has been considerably weakened in the last 10 years because of strong pressure from China and less involvement of the United States (Australia’s key ally) in the Pacific Ocean.
In 2017, the PRC was in third place, after Australia and New Zealand, based on the amount of aid given to 14 small independent island countries in the Oceania (the South Pacific subregion stretching from the shores of Australia and New Zealand to South America with a population of 11 million people). And in 2018, China overtook Australia by providing the Oceanic nations an enormous sum of money equivalent to $4 billion, which was four times the amount, i.e. $815 million, given by Australia. Incidentally, the PRC invested most of these funds in infrastructure initiatives in Papua New Guinea, the largest nation in the region with a population of 8 million people.
Moreover, the island countries began to establish ties with Russia. In 2012, head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation Sergey Lavrov visited the second largest (in terms of size) nation in Oceania, Fiji, during his tour of the region. And in 2013, in turn, the Fijian Prime Minister made a trip to Russia. The President of Nauru, who recognized the independence of Abkhazia, visited Moscow, Sochi and Sokhumi in 2017. Thanks to the N.N. Miklouho-Maclay Foundation’s Russia – Oceania Project, the cultural and educational ties between the Russian Federation and Papua New Guinea have developing rapidly since 2017.
It is not surprising that over the recent years, the nations of Oceania have become almost completely accustomed to the idea that their partnership with Beijing will only strengthen in the future. After all in November 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping paid an official visit to Australia, New Zealand and Fiji, thereby becoming the first leader of the PRC to visit Oceania. Since, in 2006, economic sanctions were imposed on Fiji by its regular aid donors such as Australia, New Zealand and the United States because of political disagreements, the PRC quickly replaced them in that role. And already in 2010s, most of the goods came to Fiji from the former Celestial Empire while all the segments of the Fijian economy were financed via grants, loans and investments from the PRC. As a result of Xi Jinping’s visit to Fiji, the island nation introduced a visa-free regime for up to 30 days for Chinese citizens in order to encourage tourism from the PRC, which had already been on the rise. It is not surprising that Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama gave a warm welcome to his guest (from a key to the Fijian economy nation). Afterwards, the fact that China could potentially establish a military base in Fiji was leaked to global news outlets.
Soon after, the news that the PRC was preparing to build military bases in two other nations in Oceania, i.e. Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea, travelled around the world.
Fiji, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea are the largest independent countries in close proximity to the eastern coast of Australia that are of strategic and geopolitical importance to Australia’s defense policy. Chinese military bases in the above nations would have spelled a total disaster for Australia in the South Pacific region.
The rumors were fueled by China’s efforts to repair key ports in Fiji, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea in order to facilitate transportation of large cargo volumes as part of China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) trade and economic initiative, which, aside from the aforementioned nations in Oceania, includes Australia and New Zealand since 2017. The assumption is that the PRC needs armed protection for its goods in ports located along the OBOR route and for combatting piracy; after all, this was the reason why the first Chinese military base outside of its borders was established in Djibouti (an African country) in 2017.
Beijing’s expansion into Oceania reached its peak when Huawei (a private Chinese technology firm) began laying submarine communications cables in the Pacific Ocean to link Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and Sydney, which threatened Australia’s information security as the company would have needed access to Sydney’s servers where all the undersea cables in the South Pacific originate from. In 2018, Canberra managed to stop Huawei’s involvement in the project by agreeing to cover its part of the costs amounting to $200 million. Beijing strongly retaliated against Canberra’s actions and banned the import of Australian coal into China in February 2019, thereby reducing the size of Australia’s coal industry by 22%.
Australia was forced to exert substantial diplomatic efforts as well as make significant outlays in order to keep Fiji, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea in its sphere of strategic influence. And, in September 2018, only a month after Prime Minister Scott Morrison had come to power, the Boe Declaration on regional security was signed with Vanuatu. After that, the possibility of establishing a Chinese military base in this nation was no longer viable.
The same month, i.e. in September 2018, Canberra offered to Papua New Guinea to repair the nation’s Lombrum Naval Base (which had belonged to Australia until 1974). Its government agreed to the proposal, having taken into account the generous aid package from Australia, i.e. Papua New Guinea’s long-term ally and former colonial ruler.
In September 2018 (again), Australia made a proposal to Fiji to establish a regional center for training joint police and peacekeeping forces of the South Pacific nations in the island nation. The offer was accepted by the Fijian side in exchange for substantial investments into its economy by Australia.
In 2019, the joint Australia-Fiji military exercises resumed (which had been suspended in 2006).
The ties between Australia and Fiji were completely restored in September 2019, when Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama paid an official visit to Canberra for the first time, and met with Scott Morrison in order to sign the Vuvale Partnership agreement (which literally means a “family partnership” and figuratively, “my house is your house”). At its heart lies the concept of understanding and close cooperation between the two “organic” partners, Fiji and Australia, who need to trust each other and act as one big family also with regards to the strategic partnership aimed at ensuring peace and security in the South Pacific region.
Hence, all of the strategically important nations for Australia’s defense policies, i.e. Fiji, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea, have again proven themselves to be reliable partners of Canberra. The amount of economic aid set aside for the nations of Oceania from 2019 to 2020 was doubled, in comparison to that last year to reach a record $1.5 billion.
However, the flip side of the coin is that such diplomatic maneuvers lead to huge outlays and impact Australia’s budget, which may be viewed as unjustified in the near future because of China’s strong desire to strengthen its position in Oceania.
Sofia Pale, Ph.D. of Historical Sciences, research associate with the Center for South-East Asia, Australia and Oceania at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.