November 9, 2018
Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi shake hands at a news conference at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing Thursday.
(CNN) — On the day Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne met Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in Beijing to signal the beginning of a thaw in the Australia-China bilateral relationship, her boss, Prime Minister Scott Morrison, announced a $2.2 billion infrastructure package as part of the government’s “step-up to the Pacific.”
Few Australian politicians want to admit that the “step-up” is targeted against another country. But it is occurring as Australians are becoming increasingly concerned with the significant Chinese increase of its diplomatic, economic and potentially military presence in the South Pacific, an area that has long been considered by Canberra to be its “backyard.”
The motivation for this massive investment is the worst kept secret in Australian foreign policy: Australians know it is about China; the South Pacific Islands know it is about China; even Beijing knows it is about China.
Is Australia over-reacting? If not, why now? And can an economy less than one-eighth the size of China’s really compete with the latter’s ambitions in the South Pacific?
For foreigners, the national importance Australia attaches to the Pacific might be difficult to understand. In April 2018, Australian mediareports claimed China had approached Vanuatu about building up its military presence on the island, and potentially opening a military base.
Having given the island of around 270,000 people hundreds of millions of dollars of development aid, the reports also indicated that Beijing had been negotiating with Vanuatu about host and even basing rights for People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy ships.