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Pacific 'death struggle' that undermines Australia

By Greg Barns - posted Wednesday, 21 February 2007

One wonders how much longer Australian Prime Minister John Howard and Foreign Minister Alexander Downer can put up with the destructive meddling of Beijing and Taipei in the Pacific region. It seems as though each time Australia intervenes in troubled Pacific states like the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, the efforts are undermined by what one commentator recently called a "death struggle", in which mainland China and Taiwan seek to win the approval of the Pacific state in question.

If you believe the public utterances of Mr Howard and Mr Downer, they are not overly concerned by mainland Chinese and Taiwanese interference in the domestic politics of small Pacific states to win their diplomatic support. While Mr Howard has said recently that Australia "faces on-going and, in my opinion, increasing instances of destabilised and failing states in the Pacific region", he's not prepared to publicly lash Beijing and Taipei for their part in this state of affairs.

Mr Howard soft-pedalled the issue when he told The Sunday Telegraph in December that there is a "a bit of a battle" between the mainland and Taiwan to influence many of the tiny and bankrupt Pacific nations.


But, according to a recently published paper from the Sydney-based think-tank the Lowy Institute, mainland China and Taiwan are creating a mess in the Pacific. This is directly undermining Australia's multibillion-dollar aid and governance program designed to stabilise the region. According to the author of the paper, Graeme Dobell - a senior broadcast journalist - the "diplomatic competition between [mainland] China and Taiwan is destabilising island states in the South Pacific, making Pacific politics more corrupt and violent".

Dobell said that the South Pacific is "one area that disproves [Beijing's] standard international claim that it never interferes in the internal affairs of other states". And, he said, "Taiwan's obsession with [mainland] China means Taipei gives little real attention to the impact it is having on Pacific stability".

In the past five years, the Solomon Islands has exploded in a lethal eruption of violence and lawlessness. Bribing of politicians is commonplace, and the Taiwanese Government regularly hands over large sums of money to them. Meanwhile, Beijing is bankrolling major public building projects in Pacific countries, and over 3,000 Chinese state-owned and private businesses have invested some US$500 million in the region.

This Beijing-Taipei struggle puts Australia's security at risk, potentially stretching the capability of its defence forces. Further, it raises questions over the effectiveness of Canberra's aid program for Pacific countries. That scheme is tied to recipients meeting benchmarks in areas like governance, while Beijing's and Taipei's cheques come with few if any strings attached.

The Howard Government has supported Beijing publicly whenever possible, but Dobell believes it might be time to talk tough. Australia, he says, "is confronting the reality that its policy interests in the South Pacific clash with China's approach, in areas such as governance, corruption, financial standards, transparency and democratisation".

But, if Canberra got tough with Beijing and Taipei, would they alter their approach? If you were a betting person you would say "no", because the intensity of the mainland-Taiwan conflict runs so deep that neither side would trust the other to respect Australia's wishes.

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First published in the South China Post on February 14, 2007.

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About the Author

Greg Barns is National President of the Australian Lawyers Alliance.

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