Australia cannot afford to get into ‘strategic competition’ with China in Pacific, says Labor

Australian Labour Defence spokesman Richard Marles. Picture: RNZ

CANEBRRA, 25 SEPTEMBER 2018 (THE AUSTRALIAN) – Australia cannot afford to get into a “strategic competition” with China in the Pacific and should engage with nations in the region on its own terms to “earn the right to be the natural partner of choice,” Labor’s defence spokesman says.

Richard Marles said it would be a mistake if Australia’s “guiding light” in Pacific policy is “strategic denial.”

The Australian revealed last week that Malcolm Turnbull had been working on plans with Papua New Guinea to develop a joint naval base on Manus Island in a bid to edge out China.

“There is no doubt that were China to establish a military base in the Pacific then that changes Australia’s strategic circumstances,”Marles told Sky News Australia .

“But if we are really there because we do not want China to be there, then we will get this wrong. We would be engaging in a strategic competition with a country that is going to have the biggest economy in the world.”

Plans for the joint facility in PNG were under way as Australia moved to block Chinese involvement in ­another regional military development — the upgrade of Fiji’s Black Rock military camp in Nadi.

Turnbull led the negotiations with Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama to ensure Australia became the sole foreign donor in the redevelopment of the base, which will be used as a regional training hub for South Pacific ­defence forces.

Marles said Australia needs to be involved in the Pacific for its own sake “not because someone else is interested.”

“We need to earn the right to be the natural partner of choice for the nations of the Pacific,” he said.

On another note of growing influence in domestic infrastructure, Marles said a $13bn (US$9.4 million) takeover bid by Hong Kong based CKI of the APA Group — which moves more than half the gas used by Australia through its network — should be viewed through a “national security lens.”

“Our gas pipelines are critical infrastructure and national security has to be a consideration so we can learn how these pipelines are owned and how they may be leveraged, one way or another, in the future,” he said.

Regarding Australia’s other interests in the Pacific — asylum-seekers on Manus Island and Nauru — Marles said an Australian Medical Association call to have children brought to Australia for medical procedures at the advice of doctors would happen anyway under a Labor government.

“If we were in government and a Labor minister was hearing advice from doctors, that would be more than persuasive,” he said.

“I would find it astounding… if the government were to deny advice that came from medical professionals.”

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