Laurenceson, who is the director of Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), told The Epoch Times that the United States and Australia must maintain trust and strong ties in the Pacific to ensure that any Chinese civil infrastructure facilities don’t become military ones in the future.
“Simply building a facility doesn’t mean China can control it or launch military assaults from it,” Laurenceson said. “America could reasonably be concerned given it disrupts the status quo, but frankly, the weight of American outright military bases close to China would still dramatically outweigh that of potential ‘dual-use’ facilities built by China.”
This comes as opposition leaders in the Pacific nation of Kiribati say China had plans to revive and upgrade an airstrip and bridge on one of that country’s islands, about 3,000kms (1,864 miles) southwest of Hawaii.
The project in Kiribati was revealed when opposition lawmaker Tessie Lambourne told Reuters she was concerned about the plans and wanted to know whether the new initiative was part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
BRI is an infrastructure development program used by China to engage its construction and financial sectors with the world. It has been called debt-trap diplomacy as poorer nations often get trapped into taking out huge loans from China to pay for the builds which they struggle to repay. Currently, nine Pacific countries have signed on to the BRI including Kiribati, Solomon Islands, the Cook Islands, Fiji, Vanuatu, Tonga, Niue, Samoa, and Papua New Guinea.
“The government hasn’t shared the cost and other details other than it’s a feasibility study for the rehabilitation of the runway and bridge,” Lambourne said. “The opposition will be seeking more information from the government in due course.”
The plan would place Chinese run infrastructure within 2,000 miles of U.S. military bases. This would provide China with a foothold into what the United States calls the second chain islands which were strongly tied to that country and its allies since World War II.
Laurenceson noted that while Australia was understandably sensitive about infrastructure facilities closer to home that could be used for military purposes, there’s not much that Canberra can really do about China’s increasing engagement in the region unless it wants to pay for the new developments.
“If Australia isn’t willing to stump up the funding to build the infrastructure … the next best alternative is to have strong, respectful relations with these host countries in a bid to ensure such facilities do not move beyond civilian use,” he said.
Beijing’s Increasing Financial Hold over the Pacific
Australia has moved in the past year to enhance its engagement in the Pacific with the announcement it will spend $300 billion in the region on infrastructure projects as part of the Pacific Step-Up. It has also spent millions on COVID-19 aid and increased defence ties around the region—funding a naval centre and establishing a defence partnership with Fiji while providing naval vessels to Palau.
However, Pacific nations still see China as a source of easy money, according to the president of Cook Islands’ chamber of commerce.
According to research from the Lowy Institute, in 2019, China was the region’s third-largest donor and Reuters reported that the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) had seen an increase in loans to the Pacific region over the past year as countries seek to find a way out of the COVID-19 economic downturn.
“China is very willing to lend money to any Pacific island nation. As much as Australia and New Zealand have encouraged the islands to look to them first, it’s been a lot easier getting money out of China,” Fletcher Melvin, president of Cook Islands’ Chamber of Commerce said.
Anna Powles, a senior lecturer at the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at Massey University in Wellington, New Zealand, warned that loans from the AIIB could create debt traps for participating counties, much like the BRI.
“If the AIIB becomes the primary lender to the Pacific and the region’s economic recovery is driven by Chinese lending, then certainly there will be cause for significant concern that economic dependence could be exploited,” Powles said.