By Jacob L. Shapiro
China’s expansion has hit a new obstacle: Australia. Most of the attention on China’s maritime expansion focuses on the South China Sea, where the presence of so many countries with territorial claims complicates the formation of an anti-China bloc. When China zeroes in on the tiny island nations of the South Pacific, however, it runs up against Australia, that region’s lone power. China has vast resources at its disposal, but Australia is signaling that it will try to prevent China from using those resources to gain a foothold in the region.
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced June 25 that Canberra was negotiating with Vanuatu on a bilateral security treaty. The statement came as Vanuatu’s prime minister, Charlot Salwai Tabismasmas, was in Canberra for a visit. Turnbull said the security treaty will address issues such as economic aid, maritime surveillance and defense cooperation.
Vanuatu, like New Caledonia, the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, is far more strategically important for Australian national security than its size might suggest. Consisting of some 80 small islands and a population of just under 300,000 people, Vanuatu could be used by a hostile power to impede Australia’s access to the seas, or worse, as a staging ground to threaten Australia’s eastern coast.
Australia voiced concerns a few months ago that Vanuatu was slowly sliding into China’s orbit. In April, Fairfax Media, citing unnamed senior Australian defense officials, reported that China and Vanuatu were in discussions on a potential Chinese military base in the country. Both sides denied the report – Vanuatu quite angrily. What is undeniable, however, is that China has sought to become a major player in Vanuatu. China owns almost half of the country’s $440 million in foreign debt. A U.S. State Department report identified Vanuatu as one of 16 states that China was aiming to control via “debtbook diplomacy.” And since 2007, trade between China and Vanuatu has increased by a factor of six – Vanuatu actually imported more last year from China than from Australia.
Australia, for its part, has not been sitting on its hands. The Lowy Institute, an influential Australian think tank, noted in a recent report that Australia committed 65 percent more aid to Vanuatu from 2006 to 2016 than China did. Of course, that excludes China’s more recent investment, which anecdotally appears more aggressive than in the past, and it fails to account for the ways in which China often conceals its foreign investments (bribery, for example). Even so, China is working against a country in Australia that is well entrenched and that can credibly point to political trust and historical presence as key advantages in its favor.
Australia has recently been active elsewhere in the South Pacific too. Two weeks ago, the prime minister of the Solomon Islands visited, and Canberra committed to building a 2,500-mile (4,000-kilometer) undersea high-speed internet cable from Australia to the Solomons – specifically to prevent China from doing so. The Australian Broadcasting Co. noted that the cable would be paid for with Australian tax dollars. (The agreement may end up being delayed due to internal politics in the Solomons, but not because China is going to get the deal.) And last month, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop visited Papua New Guinea. Bishop told Fairfax last week that her goals were to ensure that Australia remained the South Pacific’s main force for economic stability and to defend the national sovereignty of all South Pacific countries – a blunt assessment of the region’s heightened competitiveness.
In short, Australia is pursuing a new and more aggressive posture to maintain the strategic status quo in the South Pacific. This will not be easy in the face of Chinese challenges. Curtailing U.S. power in the Pacific is a Chinese imperative, and that means curbing the influence of U.S. allies like Australia as well. China has deep pockets and is willing to spend to buy new friends. Case in point: Papua New Guinea’s prime minister is wrapping up a visit to China, during which he committed the country to China’s One Belt, One Road initiative. The issue is not OBOR – many of the deals so far amount to little more than inconsequential infrastructure projects – but whether signing such a deal might indicate that Papua New Guinea or another South Pacific nation could eventually seek a broader alignment with China.
The U.S., with Japan, the Philippines and Taiwan, is increasingly focused on holding the line in the South China Sea. It will be up to Australia to do the same in the South Pacific – and that means that small islands that rose to international awareness in World War II are the subject of intense geopolitical competition once more.