The United States has been the dominant player in the Pacific since the end of World War Two and has a well-established military presence in the region. Knowing this, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has been engaging in a systematic effort to draw Pacific nations closer to its sphere of influence by pouring aid into the region.
The PRC clearly hopes to reduce the influence of the United States and its allies. One such ally is Australia, whose Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, has recently made it clear that Australia will not sit idly by whilst China gains economic leverage over nations in the South Pacific. They plan to counter China by establishing a ‘Pacific package’ that can be used by Pacific nations to build infrastructure, thus creating a bulwark against Chinese economic influence. In doing so, Australia is standing up to China in a way that many other nations refuse to.
In recent years, Australia has been alarmed at the high level of aid China has directed at the South Pacific. Australia is the biggest donor to the region, and views influence in this part of the world as integral to its national security. Australia also has serious concerns about Chinese influence in its internal affairs. In June of this year, a new law was passed to make it harder for foreign agents to undermine Australian democracy by promoting a favourable view of their home nation. Therefore, the package of aid for the South Pacific makes sense, as it is part of a continuing effort to preserve Australian sovereignty and independence.
One of the biggest fears for Australia is that China will attempt to militarise the South Pacific. This could take place if Australian influence in the region recedes rapidly. With its growing navy, the Chinese are doing very little to alleviate these fears.
However, what makes this development especially surprising is the fact that Australia and China are major trading partners. Australia has achieved considerable economic success by exporting raw materials such as iron and coal to the fast-growing economy of the PRC. Likewise, China has used these raw materials to achieve high levels of economic growth. Indeed, with China being Australia’s biggest trading partner, most people would probably be surprised to learn that it is also one of the main critics of China’s expansionist ambitions.
Following the 2016 Hague ruling that declared China’s claims in the South China Sea to be illegitimate, Australia was among the nations calling for the PRC to respect international law and take action in line with the Hague ruling. Despite being a nation whose economic ties with China are of the utmost importance, Australia still appears willing to stand up for international law.
This is what makes Australia’s plans for investment in the Pacific such an important step. By showing China that it will not be allowed to expand its influence without reprisal, it can be hoped that the PRC will reconsider its aggressive foreign policy. If even close trading partners, like Australia, are prepared to stand up to it, China may realise that its expansionist agenda will only hurt itself in the long run. Whilst some commentators point out that only a certain portion of the money that China has committed to the Pacific has actually been delivered, this Australian initiative is still a powerful rebuke to Chinese efforts. Indeed, the fact that China has become the second biggest donor in the South Pacific shows the extent of their ambitions.
For China, this is about becoming much more than a regional power and Australia has recognised this. Democratic nations have a responsibility to uphold international law, and China’s flagrant violations of it should not go without a response. If no such response takes place, there is a strong possibility that the People’s Republic of China will seize more influence in the Pacific and threaten to undermine the security and stability of the whole region.