One of Australia’s highest foreign policy priorities, the Pacific Step-up, is at risk of losing ground to China if the federal government ignores the region’s needs, a strategic expert has claimed.
Beijing is moving to control vital trans-Pacific sea lines of communication under the guise of helping low-lying Pacific island nations with economic development and adapting to rising sea levels.
Steve Raaymaker, principle at EcoStrategic Consultants, contended in an article published by the ASPI Strategist that Pacific nations and territories are becoming increasingly vulnerable to China’s cash-based diplomacy because more traditional allies, like Australia, are ignoring their development needs.
Raaymaker argued that as a result the strategically vital nations are being co-opted by China with promises of significant financial and development aid as they face rising sea levels.
This is creating a situation where although Australia has invested $1.9 billion into development assistance programs, it still needs to do more.
“Australia’s Pacific Step-up needs a lot more ‘up’ in its ‘step’ if such developments are to be effectively countered,” Raaymaker wrote.
The Pacific Step-up policy was designed to respond to the Pacific’s challenges around climate and disaster resilience, sustainable economic growth, health, and education.
Raaymaker believes Australia has not recognised or addressed the Pacific’s broader development concerns, like rising sea levels, and therefore, Australia cannot tailor its development assistance to address these issues concretely.
Marise Payne, Australia’s Foreign Minister, previously conceded this point.
In 2019, Payne said: “Our conversations in the Pacific over the past several years have made it clear that we can and should all do more together to rise to the challenge and opportunities of our new Blue Pacific Continent.”
But this acknowledgment has done little to assuage Pacific island nations from China’s sway.
Rising Sea Levels Drives Move Towards Beijing
In 2019, both the strategically important Kiribati Islands and the Solomon Islands re-established diplomatic ties with China after previously being allied to Taiwan.
At the time, Kiribati President Taneti Maamau said he was pleased to be engaging with China as it was “helping small and medium-sized developing countries such as Kiribati to speed up development and address challenges such as climate change.”
Kiribati is recognised internationally as one of the world’s most vulnerable countries to the rising sea levels. According to DFAT, nearly all of its 33 islands are less than 2 meters above sea level, its land atolls are often less than 500 meters wide, and its communities are often dislodged by storms and high tides.
As a result of this, Kiribati wants to reclaim land from the sea which, according to the country’s 20-year development plan (pdf), will be around 767 acres by 2036.
Beijing is eager to help with the expensive task.
Already lined up to construct two major transshipment hubs in Kiribati which will require large scale land reclamation, China is said to be preparing its fleet of dredgers that were used to build the artificial islands in the South China Sea.
The government of the Solomon Islands echoed the sentiments of Kiribati.
In an interview with NPR in 2019, Robson Tana Djokovic, chief of staff to the Solomon Islands’ prime minister; and Samson Viulu, a senior economic official, said: the Solomon Islands felt they weren’t an important part of the global community because they don’t have big economies and so are not treated as important when it comes to rising sea levels.
According to those officials, the Solomon Islands government turned to China in the hope it would help them create economic development and mitigate the effects of rising sea levels on their countries.
But Raaymaker argues this aid is simply a fallacy perpetrated by the Chinese regime.
“China panders directly to such concerns and bills itself as a global leader on climate change, despite now being the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases,” said Raaymaker.
Raaymaker also told The Epoch Times that small nations like Kiribati are incredibly vulnerable to being taken advantage of by the Chinese regime’s Belt and Road Initiative with outcomes like what happened to Papua New Guinea (PNG) all too probable.
PNG has recently found itself with growing debt owed to China and an increasingly difficult fiscal position which is compounded by the failure of many of the joint China-PNG projects.
According to Jeff Wall, an ASPI strategist, the PNG government owes China nearly $5 billion for a range of Huawei-led communications projects and infratstructure projects like the Shenzhen Energy Group/Sinohydro hydropower station.
However many of the projects have been stalled or poorly built to allow China access to the Pacific nation.