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China and Australia’s diplomatic tactics collide in the Pacific

Singapore: Ten days, eight countries. China’s statecraft machine has landed in the Pacific. It is ambitious and occasionally offensive but also increasingly attractive for governments who believe they have been dismissed by the global economy and now find themselves in their best negotiating position in decades.

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi arrived in Solomon Islands on Thursday. The 10-day trip – unprecedented for a Chinese envoy – reveals not only how seriously Beijing is taking its Pacific ambitions but also offers a sharp tactical contrast between China and the western foes it claims are attempting to contain it.

Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong and her Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, are both touring the Pacific.Credit:The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age

Beijing, targeted by the Quad and AUKUS, distrusted by NATO, suspicious of ASEAN, and rejected by the G7, has made an art form of wooing individual states. The motorcade rolls in, millions of dollars in economic investment promises are made, and cooperation deals are later signed. The Solomon Islands security deal is a case study in Chinese international affairs.

“The days when global decisions were dictated by a small group of countries are long gone,” a Chinese Foreign Affairs official told the G7 last year.

The mantra appeals to governments who believe their people deserve more resources – not just to educate and medicate – but to build airports, stadiums and cities, to those who believe the west has ignored their warnings about climate change, and to some who want to take a cut for themselves.

All of this is at play in the Pacific – a vital strategic area for Australia less than 2000 kilometres from the Queensland coast. Solomon Islands, Kiribati, Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and East Timor are on Wang’s itinerary. Many are still reluctant to host visitors during the COVID-19 pandemic, but Wang will arrive with a 20-strong entourage for the marathon tour. In his suitcase, he will carry the kind of economic and security deals that democratic nations will struggle to counter because he does not have to justify to Chinese voters why they are in their best interests.

His counterpart – Australia’s new Foreign Minister Penny Wong – has no such luxury. Arriving in Suva today, she will have to persuade Fiji to convince other Pacific countries that sticking with Australia as their top partner in the region is worth their trouble.

Some, including the Solomons Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare and East Timor’s José Ramos-Horta, see the great power competition they have found themselves thrust into as their great bargaining opportunity. Others, including the president of the Federated States of Micronesia, David Panuelo, remain distrustful. The leaking of a Chinese draft proposal for a 10-country strong Pacific security, data-cooperation and trade deal to Reuters on Wednesday illustrates the division.

For its part, the West knows it has an optics problem. The Quad, which started as a humanitarian response to the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami and had its latest meeting in Tokyo on Tuesday, is labelled a “dialogue”. In reality, like AUKUS, it has become a summit of big power projection helmed by the leaders of the four countries involved – the United States, Australia, India and Japan.

Officials are working extra hard to undo the perception that it is elitist and exclusionary, fuelled by Beijing’s daily exercise in labelling it and other groups of which China and other developing countries are not members as “exclusive cliques”.

“I would stress this is an ad hoc grouping,” one senior US administration official said in a briefing on Wednesday. “It doesn’t have a letterhead. There’s no central secretariat or, you know, headquarters. This is four like-minded partners who work together.”

Wong, who was sworn in as Foreign Minister on Monday, has inherited a much bigger seat at the international table than when Labor was last in power a decade ago. The Morrison government’s response to China’s bullying has made Australia a bigger player in the debates about Beijing’s ascendancy. She will have to work overtime to balance Australia’s multilateral obligations with big powers while trying to convince smaller nations that they are still being heard.

Former ASIO boss Duncan Lewis Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Duncan Lewis, Australia’s former top spy as the director general of security during the Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison governments, said on Wednesday that perception could be as risky to Australia’s strategic interests as reality.

“I think there is much work to be done,” he told the ANU National Security Podcast. “I was particularly worried at the time of AUKUS at the reaction among some of our southeast-Asian neighbours about Australia’s […] return to the Anglosphere.

“I think we need to get onto that quick smart. And I would be sure that the new foreign minister will be right onto that issue.”

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese knows the same perception problem exists in the Pacific.

“We need to respond to this. We know that this has been building for some time,” he told the ABC on Thursday. “Australia dropped the ball. We can’t afford to do that. We need to re-engage with the region.”

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