While Australia's primary regional focus has to be Papua New Guinea, it is absolutely critical that we do not neglect the rest of the Pacific and especially the South Pacific.
It is beyond coincidence that China is very active in the countries in our immediate region – PNG, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Fiji.
All have signed up to the "Belt and Road" program which China is effectively, and in instances ruthlessly, to tie the governments of the region to China – principally by "concessional loans" for infrastructure, education, health, communications and other public services.
Papua New Guinea recently signed up "in principle" to two loans for electricity infrastructure with the Exim Bank of China that will further burden the PNG Government and its state owned corporations by over K6 billion. The PNG Government debt level, principally but not only, with China is already probably unsustainable.
The same applies to the debt levels of Vanuatu and Fiji, through Belt and Road and other PRC loans. In the wider region, the position with regard to Tonga and Samoa is as bad if not worse.
So more Australian "lending" to the region is most definitely not what is needed.
Australia needs to maintain its generous aid program – around $600 million a year to PNG and probably another $700 million in direct assistance that is non-repayable, including special Covid-19 related grants.. On top of that Australia has given long term loans to PNG supposedly to help it "balance" its budget. In 2019 that amounted to $400 million.
There is also the Pacific "Step Up" program headed by a $2 billion Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility. This is a worthy project, given the regions infrastructure needs and China's focus on loans for infrastructure projects. But it is being implemented too slowly given the direct and current challenge from China across the region.
What needs to happen, and happen as a matter of priority, is to maximise the actual benefits of our aid program in the region in a way that enhances our bi-lateral relationships and more effectively counters the growing debt-burden laden People's Republic of China influence.
The first step needs to be to enable travel between Australia and regional neighbours where Covid-19 numbers are very low to resume as soon as possible. The most obvious example is Fiji, which has been heavily reliant on tourists from Australia for many years, and in which there is considerable Australian investment in tourism and other businesses.
If we don't facilitate Australians resuming quarantine free travel to Fiji and Vanuatu in particular, China will do so.
A return of Australian tourists to Fiji will boost the Fijian economy immediately, Depending on virus levels, Vanuatu, New Caledonia and other popular tourist destinations need to be included as soon as possible.
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