The upcoming APEC 2018 marks an important moment. For PNG, this is the state’s moment to demonstrate to the world its potential as a leader in the Pacific region. However, for the international community, it serves as a much-needed reminder of the Pacific’s importance in geopolitics. With China having made considerable diplomatic progress in developing its soft power relations with Pacific countries this summit will hopefully serve as impetus for increasing attention toward the region, specifically its largest country, Papua New Guinea.
Largely, the west has relied on Australia to provide leadership in the region. However, Australia’s relationship with PNG and the Pacific is not without concerns. The diplomatic history has been marked with periods of apathy intertwined with times of intense engagement when Australia’s interests are threatened. Tensions have further risen between the two in regard to the detention centres in the PNG as part of the “Pacific Solution,” with the PNG High Court ordering the closure of the Manus Island facility. It is clear that despite this history between the two countries, recent events have placed the relationship under strain. Indeed it is this strain that may serve to be an influential variable in the international competition to curry favour with PNG, and potentially work against western interests.
Comparatively, China has made significantly impressive steps in assisting PNG development, namely its assistance in the construction of the Port Moresby International Convention Centre. Where Australian investment into PNG has fallen in recent years, China has filled that vacuum, encouraging businesses and migration into the state, along with large development loans. Australia too delivers high levels of aid that dwarf even Chinas, however the different is that China delivers such aid through concessional loans which are noticeably more flexible and provide more autonomy than the specific project grants of Australia.
Whilst much of the concern around the growing influence of China has been toward military bases and securing economic zones, securing the diplomatic friendships of Pacific countries can serve even greater purposes. The Pacific Island states account for 6 percent of the vote in the UN general assembly whilst only accounting for 0.12 percent of the world’s population. The strategic advantage of having such a sizeable coalition of states available for whipping votes in the UN General Assembly is not to be underestimated. One only has to observe the voting history of African states and their blocking of Taiwan’s international diplomatic efforts, to comprehend the advantages that this has brought China in its political strategy. Chinese influence in Africa was based on a premise of general lack of enthusiasm for past western interventions within the continent, during both colonial periods and the “era of development” of the 20th century”. Should the Pacific Island states join this Sino-coalition, it will only serve to further disadvantage an already fracturing western alliance. Therefore, the west, and in particular Australia, should drastically review its relationships with the Pacific island states, think upon its previous sins, and begin to approach such relationships as partnerships of genuine engagement.
Australia has responded accordingly. Its 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper indicated an increased focus on the pacific region to becoming a more “resilient region.” Along with increased aid and official visits from Foreign Minister Bishop, the Australian government has also introduced a Pacific Labour Scheme designed to allow pacific citizens to work in Australia and improve communal relations. Effectively the governments goals were surmised by Bishop to create “stronger economic cooperation; stronger cooperation in security; and stronger people to people links.” Whether this is enough to offset the considerable Chinese strategic manoeuvres is difficult to predict. However, at their core, these relationships require a degree of sincerity that should not entirely be tied toward merely repealing Chinese influence. Pacific Islands are likely to foresee what will be a weak façade if this is the case. Australia instead should be genuinely focused toward assisting what is still one of the poorest regions of the world.
The APEC Summit has the potential to be incredibly significant for Australian geopolitics. It may provide the catalyst for changing a relationship that has previously been dismissive and arguably indifferent, to one of partnership and regional stability.
Michael Nguyen is an intern with the Australian Institute of International Affairs NSW. He is in his fifth year of a double degree in Arts (Political Science) and Law at the University of New South Wales. He has previously worked with the Brien Holden Vision Institute, as a lobbyist for the Labor Environment Action Network and for the Red Cross, both as President of its UNSW Society and as a logistics coordinator at its Sydney office. He currently works as a research assistant for UNSW and serves as an Army Officer reservist . His other interests include cyber-warfare, defence policy and international development.