Cooperation or dominance in the Pacific?

Lombrum naval base on Manus Island.

Last November, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that Australia will take its engagement with the region “to a new level” through a “new package of security, economic, diplomatic and people-to-people initiatives” in the region.

A month later, the Morrison government established a new Office of the Pacific within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) to support “deepening engagement” with the region.

But behind the spin lies the government’s real agenda: increasing Australian and US political authority in the Pacific, staving off what is seen as China’s competing influence and protecting the profits of Australian-owned corporations in the region.

This is in line with DFAT’s own policy, specifically the four tests DFAT uses in guiding strategic choices across the aid program. Top of the list is ensuring that Australian aid “pursues our national interest and extends Australia’s influence”.

In the 2019 federal budget, the government announced it would cut $117 million from the foreign aid budget and use it to partly fund a $2 billion Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific to provide loans for infrastructure development in the region.

The switch from predominantly grants-based aid to loans-based funding has been criticised as potentially adding to the debt stress already experienced by many Pacific nations.

It also begs the question as to what abuses Australia could get away with in a relationship based on debt servitude. Such unequal relationships have facilitated Australia’s imprisonment of refugees on Manus Island, along with its flouting of international responsibilities and human rights abuses.

Following the re-election of the Coalition government, Morrison’s first overseas visit was to the Solomon Islands, the site of Australia’s “regional assistance mission” (RAMSI). RAMSI was in reality an occupation of the country from 2003-17, which was justified by claims that the Solomon Islands was becoming a “failed state”.

As we wrote in Green Left Weekly in 2010, RAMSI troops took over policing and key posts within the government bureaucracy were handed to RAMSI advisers, giving them virtual control of the country. Australians made up more than 90% of RAMSI personnel, with the rest coming from other Pacific nations.

RAMSI influenced the political and economic life of the Solomon Islands, promoting the neocolonial agenda of the Australian government. Australian contractors and businesses were the main recipients of Australian government aid and their operations received little scrutiny.

When it comes to China, the Australian government is playing a double game: on the one hand seeking to maintain relations with a key trading partner while, on the other, trying to beat (or at least match) its influence in the Asia-Pacific region.

In January, Morrison announced $500,000 in security and policing aid for Vanuatu during a visit to the Pacific island that was widely seen as an attempt to counter China’s growing influence.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported in April last year on “secret” meetings between China and Vanuatu regarding infrastructure development, including construction of a new wharf that, according to security sources, could accommodate naval vessels and potentially “culminate in a full military base”.

Chinese officials denied any formal proposal for a base had been made.

The Australian government’s hypocrisy toward China is plain in light of Morrison’s announcement at the November APEC Summit that Australia, the US and Papua New Guinea had secured a deal to redevelop the Lombrum naval base on Manus Island so that it could permanently host Australian and, potentially, US navy vessels.

Aside from raising the military presence in the region, such a development only adds to tensions between the US and China.

Green Left Weekly will continue to shine a light on Australia’s role as a neo-colonial power in the Pacific region. But we need your help to do this.

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