No Strings Attached says Australia’s Foreign Minister

The new Australian Foreign Minister, Senator the Hon Penny Wong, has flagged a new era of co-operation with its Pacific neighbours whilst speaking at the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat in Fiji.
Wong has sent a clear message that Australia’s commitment to Pacific nations includes developing closer ties with the region.
“Australia will be a partner that doesn’t come with strings attached – nor imposing unsustainable financial burdens,” she said during a speech.

“We are a partner that won’t erode Pacific priorities or Pacific institutions – we believe in transparency we believe in true partnerships.”

Her speech to the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat in Fiji, on the fourth day in her new role as Australian Foreign Minister, also promised to listen more closely to Pacific nations, particularly over the need for action on climate change.

“This is a different Australian government and Australia, and we will stand shoulder to shoulder with you, our Pacific family, in response to this crisis,” she said.

Earlier in the week, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese of Australia, Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan, and President Joe Biden of the United States attended the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, the Quad, in Japan.
This diplomatic network of four countries is committed to supporting a free and open Indo-Pacific that is inclusive and resilient. It complements other Australian bilateral, regional and multilateral cooperation, including with ASEAN member states and Pacific partners.

On Monday 23 May 2022 a joint statement issued by US President Joe Biden in Japan launched the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Posterity (IPEF) between the initial partners of United States, Australia, Brunei Darussalam, India, Indonesia, Japan, Republic of Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. Fiji, as the first Pacific Island nation, also joined as a founding member on 27 May 2022. Together, these countries represent 40% of world GDP. As an open platform, there is an invitation for more countries, including Papua New Guinea, to join.

In December 2021, China launched its own Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership linking 15 Asia-Pacific economies in the world’s largest trade bloc. Most of the countries Biden signed up for IPEF already belong to the Chinese bloc.

Senator Wong’s arrival in Fiji on 26 May 2022 coincided with the first leg of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s multi-nation tour of the Pacific.

The meetings in Japan and Fiji come as China also seeks security and trade arrangements with 10 other Pacific nations that resemble the controversial Solomons Islands Pact which allows Chinese police to help maintain social order and Chinese naval vessels to replenish in the Solomons.

Wang’s first stop was Solomon Islands, the same nation with which China signed a security pact in April 2022 in a move that sent shock waves around the world.

The new agreement is said to not only cover policing, but security and data communications cooperation, and fisheries and would also represent a shift in Beijing’s focus from bilateral relationships to dealing with the Pacific on a multilateral basis. It is seen by some as an attempt by Beijing to wrest control of the region.

Senator Wong said considering such agreements would be decisions for Pacific nations to make, but Australia would work to establish itself as the partner of choice.

“What we will do is work with you – what we will do is work in partnership with you around your development,” she said.

That pact has raised concerns that China could send troops to the island nation or even establish a military base there. Both Solomon Islands and China have denied any intent by China to install a military base in Solomon Islands, which is about 1,700km north-east of Cairns.

Mr Wang met with high-level Solomon Island officials including Foreign Minister Jeremiah Manele, Governor General Sir David Vunagi and Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China released a tersely written statement about the visit, effectively arguing that any agreement between China and the Solomon Islands was the business of those two countries, and nobody else.
“Wang Yi stressed that Pacific Island Countries are sovereign and independent states and are not anyone’s ‘backyard’.
“Any smears and attacks on China-Solomon Islands normal security cooperation will be a dead end and any interference and sabotage will be doomed to failure.”
International media access during Mr Wang’s visit was curtailed.

Mihai Sora, a Lowy Institute expert on Australian foreign policy in the Pacific, said the geography of the South Pacific is of key interest to China.

“The geography of the South Pacific makes it a very significant part of any geopolitical contest,” he told SBS News.

“We saw a lot of that play out historically in World War Two. The geography in the Pacific hasn’t changed. There were fierce battles over the control of the Solomon Islands in World War Two and that region retains that strategic significance today,” Professor Sora said.

Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (partly funded by the Department of Defence), said the China-Solomon Islands deal was a “major concern” for Australia. Dr Davis said China is throwing “bags of money and basically buying out” small nations in the South Pacific.

“Essentially, what they’re doing is investing in these small states, getting them heavily indebted to China in what’s known as ‘debt-trap diplomacy’.

“But any investment by China into these small states comes with rather large strings attached.

“China essentially uses financial inducements to gain the support of local officials. And from that point, it gains influence and presence, and ultimately control of key assets such as ports and airports,” he said.
Dr Davis said the Solomon Islands deal could be the start of a new age of Chinese military dominance in the South Pacific.

“We have to be extra vigilant and extra attentive to the South Pacific as a region, where we’re going to see a forward Chinese presence in the near future.

“Once established in the Solomon Islands, China could then seek to expand its influence in Papua New Guinea,” Dr Davis said.

Dr Tess Newton Cain – project lead for the Pacific Hub at the Griffith Asia Institute – told SBS News:
“Relationships with countries such as Solomon Islands and others in the Pacific for Australia and for Australians shouldn’t be about competing with China or with anyone else” .

“These are relationships that span decades and centuries of history … and they should be at the forefront of foreign policy thinking for Australia.

“So rather than seeking to compete or outbid or outplay anyone else, it’s really about making sure that what Australia brings to the table is a deep and nuanced understanding and appreciation of Pacific ways of thinking and being, and a true commitment to the peoples of the Pacific to support them in their development and aspirational journeys”.

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