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Building a sustainable Maritime Silk Road to the Pacific

Updated: Mar 19, 2019

Vice President Wei, Professor Yu, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.

Congratulations to Sun Yat Sen University for your important role within the Chinese university system contributing to knowledge and understanding of international affairs. This is critically important work, recognised by the Chinese Government in the establishment of the new Institute of Advanced International Studies, of which the National Centre for Oceania Studies is a part.  Thank you for hosting this discussion today about China and the Pacific.

We live in interesting times.  The world is facing some fundamental challenges at present and these global challenges are playing out in the Pacific region.

The big global issues of new major power relations, an unpredictable international economy and the threat of climate change, have been very much in our minds recently with President Xi Jinping’s State Visit to the United States and the adoption of the new Sustainable Development Goals by world leaders at the United Nations 70thanniversary Summit.

We have not been here before.  The challenges that the world is facing today require new ideas and new approaches.  We need your help to better understand and develop these ideas and approaches.

We actually have a historic opportunity to break the mould.  Traditionally, the rise of a great power would unsettle international relations and lead to conflict.  We have to avoid that, this time.  The rise of China to great power status can and must happen under a new model of major power relations, a model of interconnectedness, what the Chinese Government calls “win-win cooperation and mutual understanding.”

At the September 3 commemoration of the end of World War Two, and again recently in the US, President Xi stated in very clear terms that China will never seek hegemony or engage in expansion no matter how developed it becomes.  I fear that message is not yet well understood and of course it is not yet tested.

In the Pacific region, we welcome the rise of China and its future contribution to regional peace and security, development and environmental sustainability, just as we are friends of the United States and are grateful for America’s contribution to regional peace and security and economic development.  We need both China and America as partners for the Pacific as we grow and as we work to protect our special part of the world.

In the changing dynamics of the international economy, we also have a great new opportunity.  After the global poverty reduction of recent decades, largely driven by the development of China, there is now potential for the benefits of global development to reach many more regions of the world, including the Pacific.  This is another great disruption, because the rise of the developing world is occurring at a time of malaise and some would say crisis of confidence in the developed world.  But, again, we must find new ways that are win-win for all.

World leaders have recently agreed on an important new agenda for global development, the Sustainable Development Goals.   These set achievable targets and importantly integrate development and sustainability.  Of course they will only matter if the targets are achieved and if the talk is converted into action.

President Xi Jinping has boldly outlined a leadership role for China, including billions of dollars of aid and debt relief for developing nations, including ambitious programs of assistance in health and education.  He also outlined at the UN Summit an even greater commitment to UN peacekeeping, to build peace where there has been conflict and to allow development to take place where there has been none, such as in conflict zones in Africa.

We in the Pacific welcome the support that China has provided to the developing economies of the Pacific Islands, in infrastructure development, health, agricultural training and other fields, including the large number of Pacific Islanders studying here in China.  Those students are our future and they will lead the sustainable development of the Pacific Islands in the generation to come.

The other great global challenge, along with a new model of great power relations and sustainable development, is to tackle climate change.

We are seeing the effects of climate change in the Pacific with rising sea levels and a worsening pattern of natural disasters in recent years.   Efforts to address climate change are not just academic but are of existential importance to the nations of the Pacific, where some of the outlying atolls fear for their future viability if the oceans continue to rise.

We have yet to see whether the world community will really take this great threat seriously, but signs in the lead up to the Paris Summit later this year are that the large nations are starting to accept that we must act and we must do more.

In all of these areas, ideas are not enough.  We need political, business and community leadership to turn the ideas into action.

We in the Pacific region know all about the difference between grand ideas and sometimes flawed implementation.

Two and a half centuries ago when Europeans began to explore in detail the islands of the Pacific, the accounts they sent home evoked a great new idea about the human condition.  They described tropical paradises with lush vegetation, beautiful beaches, abundant seafood and fruit, and of course welcoming and friendly people.  The people of the Pacific were imagined to be “the Noble Savage”, an ideal in which humans lived at one with nature.  It was an idea that appealed to a Europe at the time beginning its industrialization.

But as they brought their gunships, their convicts and their trading companies to the Pacific, the European powers in their actions did little to protect the paradise they imagined.  They often did the reverse.  In the island where I grew up, Tasmania, the British within two decades of their arrival fought a war against the local people from which few survived, one of the world’s worst examples of genocide.

This is not to say that much that was good did not come with that period of history, but our forefathers did not live up to their good intentions in relation to the ancient and proud cultures of the Pacific.  That is a lesson we must learn.

Of course later, in the twentieth century, the Pacific suffered from another wave of colonialism, with the destruction that followed the expansion of the Japanese Empire.  We in the Pacific know the horror of war and never want to see it again.

That is why we are grateful to the Americans who ended the war in the Pacific, but in some ways they also failed to live up to their ideals.  America after World War Two went on to become a pseudo-colonial power in the region, in response to the global contest of ideas that we called the Cold War.  Like the French, America conducted nuclear testing with no regard for the local island people and we are still dealing with its after effects in the ocean that is now ironically called Pacific.

So the Pacific Islands know about the good intentions and the flawed implementation of those intentions by great powers.

A new model of major power relations would be warmly welcomed in the Pacific.  One in which the great powers engaged in confidence building and mutually beneficial trade and investment, tourism and cultural people to people exchange.  It sounds like jargon but in the 21st Century we are actually seeing it in action and it is far better than the alternative.

Equally, the Pacific will benefit from sustainable development in its new form as envisaged in the Sustainable Development Goals.  We are not looking for dependency, but for the nations of the Pacific to develop their own fisheries industries, tourism industries, agriculture and of course energy and resources … for the benefit of the people of the Pacific.

This is what development is about.  Of course we in the Pacific welcome foreign investment and are open to trade and tourism.  These are the pathways to development.  They are also the way we can develop win-win opportunities both for the sources of international capital and for these and future generations of Pacific Islanders.

So a new model of development is not about plunder but about building sustainable industries for the benefit of the people in the nations of the Pacific.

President Xi’s vision of a New Silk Road and Maritime Silk Road for the 21st Century is another important new idea.  This is a grand narrative for economic cooperation built upon investment in infrastructure, communications and transport connectivity to provide new market integration for developing nations that trade with China.

For the Pacific Islands, which are remote from major markets, any opportunity to develop better air and sea and communications links is of great importance.  The Pacific Islands have so much that the people of China want and it will be of value to all of us to overcome some of the logistical challenges of distance and remoteness.

One of the fastest growing connection between China and the Pacific Islands is in tourism, which will bring with it greater knowledge and understanding, if Chinese tourists take some time to learn about the rich and diverse cultures of the Pacific.  There is a great opportunity to match Chinese capital with this growth in tourism to the Pacific, which expanded by 151% in the last year, to develop infrastructure for a sustainable tourism economy in the region.  And to be consistent with the vision for the Maritime Silk Road, this investment should be designed to benefit the people of the Pacific, by involving local communities, respecting and strengthening local cultures and training and developing local workforces.

The same applies to the opportunities in fisheries, agricultural development and minerals and energy.  Sustainable development in the Pacific can and must be win-win, to deliver real benefits to the people of the Pacific.

I encourage you, China’s thought leaders, to explore these new ideas to match our new challenges.  I ask that you give special attention to how these ideas actually play out in the local conditions of each Pacific Island Country and how the people of the Pacific can benefit, just as the people of China can benefit from great global cooperation.  Help us ensure the best ideas are implemented in the best possible way.  This will be a new way, a better way in the 21st Century.

Speech at the launch of the Blue Book on Oceania and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road at Sun Yat Sen University, Guangzhou, 28 September 2015

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