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How Australia can regain positive influence and respect in the South Pacific

By Jeffrey Wall - posted Friday, 29 October 2021

This week there has been wide coverage given to Telstra's acquisition of the Pacific telecommunications company, Digicel. The commentary has been mixed at best. The principal criticism has centred on the fact that Telstra's acquisition has essentially been funded by the Australian Government through the Export Finance entity.

Without exception commentators have attributed the massive investment to concern in federal government agencies that China might have acquired Digicel if Telstra hadn't moved to do so.

My own view is that China did not see the need to acquire Digicel (sold for around $A2.3 billion) because its existing telecommunications infrastructure in the region gives it a strong base to build on if and when it wants to.


My fear is that the government-funded acquisition will lull the federal government into a false sense of achievement – that China's advance in our immediate region has been halted, at least in the communications sector.

If you read the "Joint Statement of China-Pacific Island Countries Foreign Ministers' Meeting" issued by the PRC Foreign Minister Wang YI on behalf of all our immediate neighbours – including Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji, Tonga and the Federated States of Micronesia – you will have to come to the conclusion that China is as active as ever in our region and as aggressive as ever.

The statement contains the usual platitudes about China, and President XI in particular. It also contains vague promises about China setting up two regional 'Centres" – one on the regional response to Covid and another on the impact of Climate Change on the region.

And there was a vague promise about "co-operation on fisheries". It is now beyond doubt that China is harvesting the fisheries resources of most island countries and doing so regardless of sustainability and domestic fishing industries.

I am not aware of the Australia Foreign Minister "convening" a similar gathering of South Pacific Foreign Ministers. We participate in the Pacific Islands Forum but only convene it on a rotation basis with all members of the Forum.

There can be no question that in our region China is seeking to deliberately erode our influence. In some countries it has been more successful than in others, principally through signing island nations to the Belt and Road agenda by which it provides tied, and secret loans for infrastructure and communications in particular.


As I wrote just last week is that it is also successfully undermining Australia by an aggressive trade policy which is seeing more and more of the regions exports destined for China. The era in which Australia was the principal trading partner of the region has been in decline for some time.

How can Australia reverse the decline in our influence and standing?

That brings me to the key points I want to outline in the hope that there may be no resting on the apparent "laurels" of the Telstra acquisition, rather it might pave the way for a new focus on a people-to-people engagement which China simply will struggle to counter.

Here are just two suggestions on how we can at least begin doing so:

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About the Author

Jeffrey Wall CSM CBE is a Brisbane Political Consultant and has served as Advisor to the PNG Foreign Minister, Sir Rabbie Namaliu – Prime Minister 1988-1992 and Speaker 1994-1997.

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All articles by Jeffrey Wall

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