Former Minister Say Leadership Failed to Back Her Concerns Over China’s Relations With Pacific

August 23, 2018 Updated: August 24, 2018

Former International Development Minister Concetta Fierravanti-Wells has called out the Liberal party leadership for failing to support her after she criticised China’s aid program in the Pacific.

Fierravanti-Wells resigned from the frontbench after supporting former Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton in the leadership spill on Aug. 21, saying the prime minister had eroded the voice of the party’s conservative base.

The senator also said she was dismayed at how she was treated after making comments on China’s activities in the Pacific earlier this year.

“I was disappointed that my frank and forthright comments regarding China were criticised. I am pleased that subsequent events and media scrutiny have fully vindicated me raising these concerns,” she wrote in her resignation letter of Aug. 21.

In January, the senator said that China was constructing “useless buildings” in the Pacific, strapping Pacific countries with unsustainable debt burdens.

“We just don’t want to build a road that doesn’t go anywhere,” Fierravanti-Wells told the ABC.

“We want to ensure that the infrastructure that you do build is actually productive and is actually going to give some economic benefit or some sort of health benefit.”

According to the ABC, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop at the time neither supported nor criticised the comments.

Fierravanti-Wells told the ABC on Aug. 22 she “would have liked more support” from her colleagues.

“That [I had been hung out to dry] was certainly the perception, and that was certainly my view. And that was the perception of some of my colleagues as well,” she said.


While some Pacific leaders hit back at the senator’s comments, she said others had contacted her to offer encouragement.

She said Tonga’s recent abortive attempt to have Pacific Island countries collectively lobby the Chinese regime to forgive their debts proved she was right to voice the concerns.

“When you do see some countries in the Pacific with debt-to-GDP ratios of 50 to 60 percent, these are of concern,” she told ABC.

“The reality is that subsequent events have vindicated my position and the concerns I raised.

“My comments stimulated an international debate, it stimulated a debate in the Pacific … and a growing awareness of the impact of debt.”

Fierravanti-Wells noted that since the issue gained traction, Bishop has also adopted a stronger stance.

“I am pleased that, eventually, the language I used has also been the language that ultimately the foreign minister also used.”

High Debt Burdens in the Pacific

A recent Reuters analysis of the financial books of South Pacific island nations showed China’s lending programs had gone from almost zero to more than $1.3 billion outstanding in a decade.

The documents show China is now the region’s biggest bilateral lender, although Australia’s significant aid programs mean it remains the largest financial backer in the South Pacific.

The debt burden of small economies with little earning power has stoked fears the region could fall into financial distress and become more susceptible to diplomatic pressure from China.

Chinese loans account for more than 60 percent of Tonga’s total external debt burden, and almost half the external debt of Vanuatu. In dollar figures, Papua New Guinea has the biggest debt to China, at almost $590 million, representing about one-quarter of its total external debt.

“Given the vulnerabilities of their economies, given the very few sources of revenues they have, they tend to be in many cases at high risk of debt distress,” World Bank director for the Pacific, Michel Kerf, told Reuters in July in a phone interview.

“Their debt is reaching the limit of what would be considered sustainable.”

Reuters contributed to this report.