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Framing China in the Pacific Islands

21 Apr 2022
By Professor Joanne Wallis, Angus Ireland, Isabel Robinson and Alicia Turner
The flags of Australia and Solomon Islands. Source: DFAT/Linda Roche

Australian media and politicians are increasingly presenting Chinese influence in the Pacific as a threat. But this framing risks undermining Australia’s efforts in the region.

For many in the Australian government and national security community, the news that Solomon Islands has signed a security agreement with China will confirm their anxieties about China seeking to develop a military presence in the Pacific Islands. The overwhelming (though not absolute) assumption in the Australian media and commentary is that Australia should respond by competing with China in the Pacific Islands.

But it wasn’t that long ago – 2014, in fact – that then Foreign Minister Julie Bishop urged Australia to cooperate with China in the Pacific Islands. Australia actioned that cooperative approach by agreeing to a Trilateral Malaria Project with China and Papua New Guinea in 2015.

In 2018, however, that cooperative approach was jettisoned when rumours circulated that China was in talks to build a military base in Vanuatu. Bishop subsequently said that Australia’s approach would be “competitive” in the future. Australia then outlined a substantial “Pacific step-up” policy to improve its relationships and increase its investments in the region.

How did many Australians come to accept this shift to competition, rather than cooperation, with China in the Pacific Islands? To answer this question, we analysed 673 items of Australian government statements, media, and commentary over the last decade (2011-2021) to examine how the language they used framed – that is, promoted a particular perspective of – China’s presence in the Pacific Islands.

We found that the Australian government statements were characterised by qualified optimism about China’s role until 2018. But this was underpinned by longstanding strategic anxiety about any power with potentially inimical interests establishing a foothold in the region. From 2018 onward, Australian government statements began to more explicitly frame China’s presence in the Pacific Islands as threatening. This provided at least part of the public rationale for the spending necessary to implement the Pacific step-up.

China’s presence in the Pacific Islands was more explicitly framed as a threat in media reporting and commentary before this, but the frequency of that framing increased significantly from 2018. Notably, the first reports of rumours about China seeking to build a military base in Vanuatu claimed that “top national security figures in Canberra and Washington” were “deeply concerned about China’s ambitions,” suggesting that at least some sources may have come from within the government.

The prevalence of the threat framing meant that Australian policy initiatives were frequently presented as a response to China’s presence in the Pacific Islands, rather than discussed for their own merits or with acknowledgement that they may have had different motivations. For example, Australia’s “step up” was characterised as part of a “tug-of-war for regional influence,” a “strategic battle to secure geopolitical and military dominance,” or part of a “great game.”

But by framing the Pacific step-up largely in terms of China’s perceived threat, media reports and commentary contributed to a perception that Australia’s renewed focus on the region was primarily about competing with China, rather than motivated by an interest in the priorities and needs of Pacific states themselves. This potentially undermined the capacity of these policies to enhance Australia’s relationships in the region.

Pacific Island leaders have expressed their concern about the threat framing, particularly that it has undermined their agency and autonomy, and contributed to a belief that Pacific states will eventually have to make a strategic choice between China and their traditional partners.

It is impossible to isolate Australians’ perception of China in the Pacific Islands from their broader understanding of China’s increasingly activist role in Australia, the Indo-Pacific, and globally. But given the overwhelming frequency of the threat framing in the media and, to a lesser extent, the commentary, this likely facilitated public reception of a more competitive approach. Indeed, the 2019 Lowy Institute Poll found that 73 percent of respondents agreed that “Australia should try to prevent China from increasing its influence in the Pacific.” More than half (55 percent) believed that China establishing a military base in the region would critically threaten Australia’s interests.

The Solomon Islands-China security agreement raises challenging strategic questions for Australia. But after Australia’s efforts to dissuade Solomon Islands from signing the agreement failed, Australia may have to learn to live with some form of Chinese security presence in the region.

China sent two ships from the People’s Liberation Army Southern Theatre Command to deliver aid following the January 2022 tsunami in Tonga. COVID-19 restrictions meant that aid delivery was largely contactless, so Australian and Chinese military personnel didn’t come into contact. But given that the frequency of natural disasters in the region is accelerating due to climate change, it is only a matter of time before the two militaries find themselves delivering humanitarian relief side-by-side.

The prevalence of the threat framing in the Australian discourse makes it difficult for the government to change – or at least soften – its public statements about, and approach to, China in the Pacific Islands. While China’s behaviour means that the Australian government is unlikely to want to make such a change anytime soon, both the government and commentariat should be wary that their statements don’t limit Australia’s ability to change course or reset its policy options if needed in the future.

Joanne Wallis is Professor of International Security in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Adelaide.

Angus Ireland, Isabel Robinson, and Alicia Turner are undergraduate students at the University of Adelaide.

This piece is based on an article recently published in the Australian Journal of International Affairs.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.