A leading academic from the Australian National University has warned that Australia has a narrowing window of opportunity to play a greater role in the Pacific as China exerts more influence.
Senior Fellow at the ANU Department of Pacific Affairs Associate Professor Graeme Smith, who is the editor of a new book that delves into the broader themes of China’s influence in the region, said on Tuesday that security deals such as the recently signed one between China and the Solomon Islands would become more common, and Australia needs to step up its presence.
“We need to broaden our Pacific labour mobility scheme beyond agriculture and create pathways to citizenship – if Australia becomes a more Pacific country, we will be a more credible partner in the region,” he said.
“We need to have a credible policy for addressing climate change. We need to put more resources into training Pacific talent, both in-country and through scholarships.”
However, Smith stressed that the China and Solomon Islands security deal would likely expose flaws in the Solomon Islands’ governance systems, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation.
“If there is a flaw in your system, be it money in politics, lax enforcement of building codes, or corruption around accessing land for development, then large actors like China will find a way to exploit them,” he said.
This comes after centre-right Liberal senator James Patterson, chair of the Australian Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, said that the Australian government had known for some time that Beijing had “expansive ambitions” for the Pacific.
“They have been wanting to establish a permanent and militarized presence in the Pacific for some time, and the government of the Solomon Islands is not the first one to receive an offer like this, and it won’t be the last,” he told Sky News Australia on May 5. “We have to be on guard to this threat. It is a very serious one.”
Paterson said those familiar with World War II would know the strategic importance of the South Pacific region, and it was one of the reasons why the Pacific Step-up engagement strategy was launched.
“Our interests in the Pacific are very clear, and it’s the reason why we refocused our international aid program to the Pacific,” he said. “We’re engaged in a zero-sum game for influence with China in the Pacific.”
The new book, “The China Alternative: Changing Regional Order in the Pacific Islands”, was released on Wednesday and features 17 leading scholars based in multiple Pacific countries who detail China’s influence in the Pacific, analyzing the strategic, economic, and diplomatic implications for regional actors.
It also sheds light on key dimensions of China’s engagement in the Pacific, including its programs of aid and diplomacy, in addition to the large investments in the Belt and Road Initiative.
The book is a “must-read” for all students and practitioners wanting to understand the new geopolitics of the Pacific region, said Associate Professor Greg Fry from the ANU Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs.
“The book inspires the traditional partners to think more deeply,” he said.
“It assembles a stellar cast of Pacific scholars to deeply explore the impact of the changing role of China on the Pacific islands region.”
Fry noted that the book “puts the Pacific island states at the centre of the analysis by questioning the collective agency they might have in this rapidly evolving strategic context.”
Daniel Teng contributed to this report.