In a new Lowy Institute Analysis, Jenny Hayward-Jones, Director of The Myer Foundation Melanesia Program, provides a sober assessment of China’s growing engagement in the Pacific Islands region. She argues that it is inaccurate and potentially counter-productive to view China’s activities in the region in geo-strategic terms.
China’s activities in the Pacific Islands are being viewed akin to its growing geo-strategic role in Asia. The recent Australian Government Defence White Paper 2013 cautioned that Australia’s role in the Pacific may well be balanced in the future by the growing influence of Asian nations. America has stepped up its aid to the Pacific out of concern for China’s rising influence.
In ‘Big Enough for all of us: geo-strategic competition in the Pacific Islands’, Hayward –Jones reviews China’s trade and investment, aid, diplomatic and military ties in the region. She argues that concerns about Chinese strategic ambitions are overstated.
‘If China’s aims in the region are to be described in terms of geo-strategic competition, then on the available evidence, China is not a particularly committed competitor’, said report author Jenny Hayward- Jones.
The Analysis highlights that China is far from challenging Australia’s dominant role in the region. China’s trade with the Pacific islands is approximately one third of the value of Australia’s trade with the region and China’s military assistance pales in comparison to the A$153million Australia spends on defence cooperation and operations in the region. China, only the fifth largest donor to the Pacific Islands devoting 4% of its global aid to the region, is unlikely to worry Australia's lead donor status any time soon.
‘Australia’s role in the region is not under threat from China’, concludes Hayward- Jones.
The risk is that viewing China’s activities through a geo-strategic lens will limit the ability to cooperate with China to both leverage the positive and manage the negative aspects of its increased activism in the region.
‘Rather than speculate on China’s future ambitions, Australia and the United States should focus on making more of their evolving relationships with China, and cooperate with China in aid and investment activities that support Pacific Island development priorities’, she said.