Shorten pushing for greater leadership role in Pacific

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten. Picture: THE AUSTRALIAN

SYDNEY, 29 OCTOBER 2018 (THE AUSTRALIAN) – Bill Shorten will seek to transform Australian leadership in the ­Pacific if Labor wins office by partnering with regional neighbours through a government-backed ­infrastructure investment bank.

In a headland address to the Lowy Institute in Sydney, the ­Opposition Leader  will today frame the announcement as an ­effort to ensure Pacific island ­nat­ions “look to Australia first” amid an aggressive push from Beijing to expand its sphere of influence.

The new investment bank would provide concessional loans for “vital nation-building projects” to prevent the 10 million people across the Pacific from “living in some of the least-­developed nations on the planet”.

While elevating Australian leadership in the Pacific as an ­urgent foreign policy priority, Shorten will be careful not to frame the move as being directed against China and argued that engagement should be based on the strategic importance of the region “in its own right”.

“Our goal will not be the strategic denial of others but rather the economic betterment of the 10 million people of the Pacific ­islands themselves,” he will say.

The Labor approach will be grounded on a recognition of the Pacific region as a “blue continent” that is “larger than all of earth’s landmass combined”.

“We will not define our Pacific neighbours by their smallness in size and population but by the greatness of the ocean they are custodians of — and that we share with them.”

The Labor push for an infrastructure investment bank follows rising alarm that Beijing has used what critics call “debt-trap diplomacy” in the region to ­advance its strategic interests and develop assets that could provide a future foothold for the Chinese military.

In July, the government announced a “trilateral partnership” with Japan and the US to boost infrastructure investment in the Indo-Pacific in a move widely viewed as a response to Beijing’s “Belt and Road Initiative”.

Drawing the political battlelines around Pacific policy, Mr Shorten will use his address to position Labor as better placed to help low-lying island neighbours address the threat of climate change — a key weakness for the government after it abandoned the national energy guarantee.

Shorten will confirm he intends to give the region greater priority in his frontbench line-up and will attack Scott Morrison for not attending last month’s Pacific Islands Forum in Nauru, saying it sent the “worst possible message at exactly the wrong time” and is part of a “pattern of neglect”.

“Labor will reconstitute the role of minister for Pacific affairs and international development that the new Prime Minister has recently relegated to assistant minister status,” he will say.

Labor will use the new investment bank to encourage private firms to invest in Pacific roads, ports, communications technology and energy infrastructure.

“Our neighbours in the Pacific are looking for partners to help them build infrastructure — and as prime minister, I intend to make sure they look to Australia first. I see this as a way Australia can elevate our status as a ­‘partner-of-choice’ for Pacific dev­elopment and enhance security and prosperity in the region.”

Australian Strategic Policy Institute executive director Peter Jennings said the government had been caught out by how quickly China had moved to expand its influence in the Pacific.

“We really came late to the ­realisation that China was in some ways as active in the Pacific as it was in the South China Sea — just in a different way,” Mr Jennings said. “We’ve taken our leadership position in the region for granted and the truth of the matter is we don’t actually have the leadership position we imagine.

“We have a chance to get it back but it is going to take deeper engagement in the areas of military co-operation, police and intelligence co-operation as well as from the business community.”

Analysis from the Lowy Institute in August suggested 70 per cent of China’s Pacific aid came in the form of concessional loans for infrastructure projects. The data, funded by government, showed China was the second-largest donor to Pacific ­island ­nations over the past eight years. ­

Australia remained the biggest donor in the Pacific, spending $6.58 billion (US$4.66 billion) over the same period. Since 2011, Beijing spent $1.26bn (US$894 million) but had committed $5.8bn (US$4.11 billion), including $3.5bn (US$2.4 billion) for a Papua New Guinea road project.

Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, the former minister for inter­national development and the ­Pacific, warned earlier this month that PNG was being “used as a conduit for Beijing’s outreach into the Pacific”. She previously sounded the alarm on Beijing lending funds to Pacific nations on unfavourable terms and constructing “useless buildings” and “roads to nowhere” in the ­region.

 

In April, Australian diplomats met Vanuatu officials to test reports Beijing wanted to establish a permanent military presence on the Pacific island nation, triggering fears of a Chinese military installation fewer than 2000km from Australian shores.