As the Australian Government presses on with its pivot to the Pacific, no-one wants to use the “C” word.
But China is clearly playing a central role in the unprecedented amount of attention the region is currently receiving from Australia — even if its officials won’t admit it.
It’s just six weeks into the new year and already the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister, the Assistant Minister for the Pacific, the Chief of Defence Force and the Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police have visited the region.
It’s a pattern we can expect to see more of as the year unfolds — and not just from Australia.
Chinese President Xi Jinping is rumoured to be making another visit to the region after a historic trip to Papua New Guinea at the end of last year.
New Zealand and India also have high-profile visits planned.
So what explains the suddenly intense focus on the region?
James Batley said there are a few issues at play.
Some Pacific countries have been more assertive in their foreign policy in the last few decades, forcing Australia to work harder to retain influence.
But he said the spectre of China rising in the Pacific is also key.
“I think China is a really important factor,” he said.
“China has, in a sense, become a disruptive force in the Pacific.”
“[It’s] a country that is more influential now than it has been in the past, and is looking to spread its influence in the region.”
Australia steps up as China encroaches
No one is more focussed on this disruption than defence and intelligence officials in Canberra.
It’s not surprising that there has been a strong security focus in recent trips by Australian heavyweights.
The Chief of the Defence Force, General Angus Campbell, conceded his recent tour of the region was partly due to the Government’s “step up” in the region.
But when asked about the role China has played in the Government’s new approach, he was careful not to use its name when replying.
“I think it’s much more about a relationship between Australia and its immediate neighbours, and supporting countries that are seeking our assistance who may be fragile,” he said.
“There are many countries who work in this region, but Australia has always been here and is always going to be here.”
Standing in front of a new patrol boat that Australia has gifted Papua New Guinea, General Campbell said there is a long history of close relationships between the two countries.
This is true of both the defence force and General Campbell personally.
But things have stepped up a notch recently.
Rumours that China was in talks with Vanuatu to set up a military base in the country sparked alarm in Canberra last year.
Despite assurances from Vanuatu that it was not happening, there is still a genuine concern about a Chinese military presence in the region among security officials.
Australia has been pushing a bilateral security deal with Vanuatu in its recent visits, but so far the country has declined.
Despite this, General Campbell said all of his discussions in the country were positive.
“I think the relationship is very strong and naturally we will work together only as invited and in the forms that we’re invited,” he said.
“That’s the way to build neighbourhoods, to build communities and to have a strong relationship.”
‘We are the partner of choice’
Australia is set to fund a military base in Fiji, beating China to the position of sole foreign donor.
It is also partnering with Papua New Guinea and the United States to redevelop a naval base on Manus Island.
During her visit to Papua New Guinea this month, Assistant Minister to the Pacific Anne Ruston said “this is our region and we are the partner of choice”.
But while Australia looks to beef up its security involvement in the region, it doesn’t want other “outside” countries to do the same.
“Australia would be very concerned if anybody from outside the Pacific wanted to set up a military base in the Pacific,” she said.
“We would be working very hard with our Pacific neighbours to encourage them to think very, very carefully if they considered that to be the case,” she said.
The Minister said Australia’s moves are different because it was responding to a request for assistance from its neighbours.
However, when asked what Australia’s response would be if a Pacific nation asked China for assistance in this regard, she sounded a warning.
“We would certainly be speaking to the country and suggesting to them that the sovereignty of this area is secured by us not having military presence from external countries in the area.”
Papua New Guinea’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Rimbink Pato, doesn’t share Australia’s concerns about militarisation.
“The Pacific means the sea of peace, so peace will reign in the Pacific and we will take the necessary steps [to ensure that],” he said.
“I do not think there is a focus to increase military presence by anybody in Papua New Guinea or our region.”
Some fear climate change more than geopolitics
When Pacific island leaders talk about “security,” some have a very different conception of what the word means.
Pacific politicians are quick to point out that the recent Boe Declaration — signed by all nations in the region including Australia — identified climate change as the most pressing security threat.
They worry their nations will be battered by ever more destructive storms, and blame large economies for creating an environmental disaster which threatens their very existence.
Marise Payne got another reminder of this when she stopped off on the tiny nation of Tuvalu this week.
(United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO))
Tuvalu’s Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga was clearly delighted to see the Foreign Minister in his country, and was full of praise for the step-up.
But he warned Canberra’s grand plans would come to nothing if the major powers failed to tackle climate change.
“[It] will not mean anything to Tuvalu and the Pacific unless we deal with the issue of climate change. It’s as serious as that,” he said.
“It’s not a joke. There is no plan B as we know. We either [deal] with it, or we allow Tuvalu to submerge under water.”
By PNG correspondent Natalie Whiting and Foreign Affairs reporter Stephen Dziedzic