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The Belt and Road Initiative and the Geopolitics of the South Pacific

Updated: Mar 9, 2020

David Morris

Originally published in Research on Pacific Island Countries, Social Sciences Academic Press (China), 2019

The Belt and Road Initiative has become associated with a geopolitical “China threat” discourse in the South Pacific. Are China and Australia, the dominant regional player in the South Pacific, driven by geopolitical imperatives to compete for power or do their different geopolitical needs provide opportunity for cooperation that is mutually beneficial and manages risks in the region? Supposed Chinese “threats” as well as risks to China are examined, including fears of a military base in Vanuatu, Chinese debt-funded projects in Tonga and closer economic cooperation with Papua New Guinea. A geopolitical analysis concludes that it is feasible for Australia to meet its geopolitical imperatives if its regional security leadership can be maintained. A geopolitical analysis of China in the South Pacific concludes that China is unlikely to seek regional security leadership if it can ensure access to trade routes and markets. If Australia could move beyond geopolitical rhetoric, it should therefore be possible for Australia to partner with China to support sustainable development, mitigate risks and ensure broader stability of the South Pacific region.

China’s new program for inter-regional economic connectivity, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), will develop new trade routes and production chains linking developing world economies with the giant Chinese market. In recent years a “China threat” discourse is becoming dominant in the English-speaking narrative about the BRI and this has been particularly prevalent in the South Pacific. At the same time most Pacific island countries have signed up to participate in the BRI. The rise of China will certainly be disruptive to existing power relativities, strengthening China’s geopolitical position as the hub for diversified land and maritime trade routes including the South Pacific. The question explored in this paper is whether China and Australia, the dominant regional player, are driven by geopolitical imperatives to compete for power in a high-risk game, or do their geopolitical constraints mean they can find a formula for cooperation that is mutually beneficial and manages risks in the region?

The BRI promises to develop a wider range of trade connections across land and sea, further internationalizing the Chinese currency and Chinese corporations, as well as further globalizing the Chinese economy. Through investing in local infrastructure and connectivity along the new trade corridors, the BRI offers to integrate developing economies further into global supply chains. As Chinese industry upgrades to higher value production, it can be expected many developing world countries on the Belt and Road will take its place as suppliers of lower value products. The initiative may reduce China’s dependence on traditional trading partners and therefore over time signal a shift in Chinese outward investment away from traditional destinations such as the United States (US) and Australia towards developing BRI partners, which are enjoying the fastest growth in Chinese investment (MOFCOM, 2018). If successful, the BRI may therefore reshape global trade.

Depending on ideological predisposition, the audacity of this initiative from a rising power represents on the one extreme a huge contribution to the public good that could be contrasted with the colonialism and plunder of former rising powers or, on the other extreme, a geopolitical play to trap the developing world into debt relationships and domination by Chinese state and business interests. As China’s relative power grows and given the nature of the Chinese Party State, inevitably those nations whose relative power is declining will perceive the disruption as a geopolitical threat.

The primacy of geopolitics was evident at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders meeting in Port Moresby in November 2018. US Vice President Pence confronted China with rejection of a so-called “constraining belt” and “one-way road”, claiming the terms of Chinese assistance were “opaque”, “unsustainable and poor quality”, threatening the sovereignty of small nations. At the same time, Pence announced the US would partner with Australia in upgrading a military base on the Papua New Guinea island of Manus, at Lombrum, a port that China had reportedly offered to help upgrade (Murphy, 2018; Medcalf, 2018). Australia also announced that it would establish a US$1.5 billion infrastructure financing facility for the Pacific Islands, including Papua New Guinea, in cooperation with Japan and other countries, as a clear counter-balance to Chinese infrastructure finance. The stage was set for Great Power competition in the South Pacific. Must it be so?

After decades of constructive engagement with China, the mood in the West has soured. Following the shock of deep economic recession and its lasting impacts since 2008, with the subsequent rise of populist leadership, the US has flipped to strategic competition with China. This was first manifested in the 2017 US National Security Strategy and 2018 Defense Strategy. Its second manifestation was in the Trump Administration’s “trade war” tariffs which observers believe is part of a US strategy to de-link its economy from dependence on China and to prevent Chinese dominance of new communications and artificial intelligence technology, which are likely to be the critical platforms for the “fourth industrial revolution.” This shift to strategic competition is unlikely to be a temporary phenomenon, as US relative power diminishes over time from the unique unipolar moment that followed the end of the Cold War, and as China’s relative power increases.

The changed geopolitical climate has had an impact in the leading power of the South Pacific region, Australia. Despite being one of the most economically integrated advanced economies with China, the Australian discourse changed in recent years under a minority conservative government to a “China panic” over foreign political donations (allowed under Australian law) and supposed “foreign influence” operations. Australia began to push back against Chinese finance and investment in its region. A far right member of the government lashed out at Chinese “roads going nowhere” (Graue and Dziedzic, 2018) in an attempt to paint Chinese aid as overbearing and misallocated in order to gain political influence. The move backfired on the Australian Government, as it followed a series of blunders in which Australian ministers appeared condescending or dismissive of the Pacific, with the comments widely interpreted as attacking the decision makers of the Pacific who had solicited Chinese support for key infrastructure. Nevertheless, the BRI has been increasingly discussed in negative terms in the region, consistent with global English language discourse.

The geopolitical narrative that has developed in the West in recent years describes the BRI as a grand strategy for maritime and land route domination by China, using subsidized finance and disproportionate scale to develop infrastructure and relationships across vast swathes of the world to impose its will, including for future potential projection of military power. The narrative goes that China is trapping developing nations in debt that will be impossible to repay, laying the groundwork for Chinese economic and political domination and potential seizure of strategic assets (Hart and Johnson, 2019). This narrative has developed at the same time as China has been militarizing islands in the South China Sea, tightening its grip on internal security and sharpening its rhetoric on unification with renegade Taiwan. It is therefore understandable that geopolitical analysts may conflate a range of Chinese behaviours, combined with the authoritarian nature of the Chinese Party State, with the BRI to construct a “China threat” to the global order. But before drawing any conclusions about the Chinese Government’s long term aims, it is important to investigate both the geopolitical imperatives as well as the limits on China’s current and potential “hard power” reach.

China is a rising power, but it is a constrained power. Unlike the British Empire or the United States before it, China does not and cannot enjoy dominance of the sea and is surrounded by strategic rivals. To grow and prosper, China must trade with the world, both to import resources and other goods for its huge domestic market as well as to export goods to the world. To do so, it must have access to maritime trade routes. Yet the global and regional hegemon, the US, with hundreds of bases around the world including across the Pacific, has the capacity to interdict China’s trade. China therefore has a geopolitical imperative to expand its options, by developing new sea trade routes, as well as new land routes that will bring the added benefit of strengthening links to resource-rich Central Asia by developing – and potentially stabilizing – China’s troubled Western regions. The scale of the Chinese economy allows it to simultaneously develop new trade routes in all directions, including to South East Asia, South Asia and beyond to the South Pacific.

The rise of China will certainly disrupt existing power relativities, strengthening China’s geopolitical position. Based on the historical experience of previous rising powers, it is therefore understandable that observers expect with the development of new trade routes will come demands to keep them secure by building bases and other platforms for the Chinese military to defend its economic interests and to protect its people overseas. Ever since the US adopted the posture of strategic competition with China, stories have appeared in media across the world that China is planning future military bases along the Belt and Road.

Will Belt and Road projects be followed by military bases? China emphatically says no. President Xi Jinping has repeatedly claimed China does not seek to be another hegemonic power. To date, China has only one overseas base, in Djibouti, which sits alongside a US base and functions as a logistical and supply facility for Chinese peacekeeping forces (China is now the leading Security Council contributor of forces to United Nations peacekeeping operations). A useful case study of the Western narrative is the “China panic” about Luganville wharf in Vanuatu.

In 2018, chatter in tiny Vanuatu, a developing nation in the South Pacific, led Australian intelligence to leak to the media that China was considering establishing a base there. The claim was swiftly denied by the Vanuatu Government (Wroe, 2018). Chinese concessional finance had supported Shanghai Construction Company to build a new wharf at Luganville, which both the Government and local business welcomed as important infrastructure that could host simultaneous visiting cruise ships and container ships, supporting economic development on the resource-rich island of Espiritu Santo. The project was delivered on time and on budget but soon after the Australian media began to discuss it as a geopolitical threat. In the absence of access to confidential intelligence reports – which may not become available for decades – the claims that China was planning a military base in non-aligned Vanuatu appear wholly unbelievable and might best be understood as more related to domestic Australian politics, consistent with media stories in previous decades that generated “Libya panic” and “Russia panic” about feared military bases in the South Pacific (Gyngell, 2017).

Western commentators such as Lee (2018) construct a geopolitical “debt trap” narrative, in which the debt burden of countries such as Vanuatu and Tonga (discussed below) makes them client states of China, and that will over time amass political leverage through its firms’ control of international supply lines. This appears too simplistic, however, given the complexity of each BRI project and the multiple actors involved. Zhang (2019) notes the importance of agency on the part of governments that engage with China. Not enough attention is being paid in the dominant narrative to the agency being exercised by the governments of independent nation states, with all the emphasis on the asymmetrical power of China’s bilateral relationships.

From a Chinese (and a developing nation) perspective, it could be posited that the BRI may be a stabilizing geopolitical force, aiding development and greater economic cooperation between the nations along its trade routes. On the other hand, China’s power may be exaggerated and China itself may find itself and its interests caught in the middle of conflicts and disputes along new maritime trade routes which raise serious risks for BRI investments. Pacific island countries contain rivalries and internal divisions and China and local Chinese business communities could conceivably become the targets of alienated populations in the future, as has happened in the past. The geopolitical stakes – both risks and opportunities – are therefore particularly high for China as well as for the region.

Further, what if the debtor countries default? Some of the countries included in the BRI now have high levels of indebtedness to Chinese institutions. Others do not. China itself is exhibiting high levels of debt after a decade of expansionary policies. This is a new risk environment in which developing countries may be ill-prepared if a new global financial shock occurs in the short to medium term. These are risks that are less to do with the BRI itself than macro-economic policies in an uncertain international economic environment, but is relevant to the geopolitical analysis in cases in which countries have a high debt dependency on China.

It might reasonably be assumed that debtor countries seeking to renegotiate debt terms with Chinese financial institutions risk negotiating from a position of weakness. Yet an examination of the experience to date is that a number of debtor countries have been able to achieve rescheduling of debt or even conversion of debt to grant aid. Tonga, which became highly indebted to China after taking out two concessional infrastructure loans, convinced China to defer repayments for a further five years beyond its initial five-year grace period (Dornan and Brant, 2014). In most cases, China has tended to offer a grace period of five to seven years before repayment periods of fifteen to twenty years begin, typically at two to three per cent interest. Pacific island countries evidently welcome Chinese finance, in particular its generally lighter conditionality than finance from the traditional international financial institutions and traditional donors. Vanuatu Foreign Minister Ralph Regenvanu echoed a common refrain amongst developing nations when he referred to China’s “less stringent processes for getting large infrastructure projects implemented” (Regenvanu, 2019).

Beyond debt, there are other areas of risk for China that BRI projects will be poorly planned or implemented and that this will be interpreted through the geopolitical lens. The Belt and Road includes many high-risk operating environments which are characterized by poor local governance, inadequate security, inconsistent rule of law, lack of policy and project coordination capacity, inadequate infrastructure and labour skills, amongst other risks, all of which are challenges for successful project implementation and outcomes. Regardless of the BRI, these are environments in which corruption and clientelism, opaque and conflicting state and stakeholder interests, political instability and even threat of conflict and law and order problems may exist. Investing in States without strong institutions and good governance is both a risk and a calculated opportunity, given Chinese confidence in their own model of development.

Like other major powers, China has a global network of embassies actively gathering information to better understand the economic operating environment in each country. Following collection of such information, government to government agreements are negotiated to determine the BRI projects for which the host government is seeking financing. In theory, these are aligned with the national development plans of the host countries and local governments might be expected to collaborate with Chinese partners to reduce country risks.

In practice, major country risks are difficult to mitigate. Adaptation to local conditions is more likely, with all of its attendant risks of corruption, poor project implementation and outcomes. These will vary however by country. Dornan and Brant (2014) demonstrate, through a comparison of Pacific Island countries, the difference in project outcomes as a result of the diversity in governance. In Tonga, two Exim Bank loans were negotiated directly by government ministers and expert government agency advice was either ignored or not sought. A substantial component of Tonga’s first loan, provided to fund rebuilding the capital’s downtown district following riots in 2006, was diverted to building a wharf and a palace extension for the king. The relevant government agency was unable to enforce its preferred Australian construction standards on a road project funded by the second loan. By contrast, in Samoa, no such concerns about quality or outcomes from Chinese-financed projects have been noted, which Dornan and Brant ascribe to a well-functioning system of transparent processes for decision making including sector plans, development partner meetings and Samoan Government coordination committees chaired by the Prime Minister and involving key agencies including the Ministry of Finance, as well as representatives of the private sector and civil society.

Corruption risks also vary across different operating environments. While the Chinese Government has embarked in recent years on a highly visible anti-corruption drive, it is difficult to demonstrate whether corruption risks are being successfully managed in BRI projects. The high cost of many projects would appear to indicate that corruption remains widespread. Anecdotal discussion suggests that where projects are renegotiated after changes of ministers or of governments, that corruption is being recycled and the Chinese companies are being extorted repeatedly in some instances, although it is impossible to find such evidence on the public record.

Further, poor environmental governance by nations hosting BRI projects poses an increasing risk, as international civil society organisations publicise environmental problems and blame the firms involved (which are sometimes a softer target than host governments, which are less likely to respond). The Bank of China has faced widespread international protests over its funding of the Batang Toru Dam in Indonesia, which it is claimed will eliminate habitat for the endangered orang utan (Chan, 2019). It is quite possible that active civil society organisations in the South Pacific will also target Chinese firms if environmental problems arise from BRI projects.

The most strategically important Pacific island country is Papua New Guinea, which is rich in resources including maritime resources. There are deep and abiding links to its southern neighbour, Australia, which was given the mandate by the League of Nations after World War One to act as colonial power and to bring Papua New Guinea to independence. The two countries have strong economic and strategic ties. Australia played a leading role in Papua New Guinea’s early resources projects, is the leading contributor of aid and no doubt will continue to be an important partner to Papua New Guinea.

Once a strategically vital buffer between South East Asia and Australia and the site of key World War Two battles, Papua New Guinea was neglected in geopolitical discourse in recent decades, while the world’s attention (including Australia’s) was focused in the Middle East and other conflict zones. In 2018, however, Papua New Guinea returned to international prominence as the host of APEC for the first time, providing a platform for a developing geopolitical contest between the China and the US, with Australia also swept along in the new narrative of strategic competition.

In the meantime, Papua New Guinea and the Pacific are continuing to build closer economic relationships with China. Over the last decade, China has overtaken the US to become the second biggest aid donor in the Pacific, after Australia. Its businesses are active across the region on aid-funded projects and seeking out business opportunities.

This new wave of Chinese activity builds on earlier waves of Chinese presence in the Pacific. Chinese communities have built links to the region over centuries. First, relatively small numbers travelled out from South China and settled across Oceania, developing trading and retail businesses. In the last decade or so, as the Chinese Government adopted its “go global” economic strategy, large State-Owned Enterprises invested in major resource industries in Papua New Guinea and trade has increased with a number of Pacific island countries, particularly in resources, fish products and timber. At the same time, the Chinese Government has extended concessional loans to the developing countries of the region and has supported the construction of vital infrastructure, and education and capacity building support. The third wave is just beginning, as emerging private sector businesses from China look for more diversified opportunities across the region and as China’s outbound tourism grows.

It is difficult to ascertain how Papua New Guinea interprets the recent geopolitical turn. In the midst of the heightened geopolitical atmosphere, Papua New Guinea appears to have no grand strategy. With a weak state infrastructure, Papua New Guinea governments tend to engage with external powers on a transactional basis. Indeed, domestic politics as well is highly transactional, combining an Australian-designed system of democracy with local cultural characteristics that often require each chief or “big man” to purchase support regularly from his constituency or to face rapid replacement. Despite the appearance of a deliberative parliamentary system, decisions tend to reflect negotiated transactional benefits for a shifting majority of lawmakers.

In foreign policy making, a small elite group of political and bureaucratic leaders exercise leadership, with no established processes of broader consultation, based on transactional benefits to the leadership group (Kaiku, 2018). It is in this context that Papua New Guinea’s relationship with China has been developed. In 2014, China and Papua New Guinea established a strategic partnership. Two years later, the two countries signed several cooperation documents including a framework agreement on development cooperation on production capacity. During Prime Minister O’Neill’s visit to Beijing in 2018, the relationship was upgraded to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, Papua New Guinea signed up to the BRI and agreement was reached to begin work on joint feasibility study for a Free Trade Agreement.

It appears none of this until recently has been viewed through a geopolitical lens in Papua New Guinea. Prime Minister O’Neill was quoted as insisting “we are not very interested in geopolitics, we are very interested in doing business with everyone” in the lead up to APEC (Whiting, 2018). Yet at the same time Papua New Guinea was negotiating with Australia for the first foreign military base on its territory since independence. While Papua New Guinea leaders might dissemble, the Manus military base announcement demonstrates that Papua New Guinea is undeniably within Australia’s sphere of influence and understandably so. In this situation, the apparent competition between Australia and China for influence in Papua New Guinea becomes an important part of the context of understanding the geopolitics of the region.

Indeed, a closer investigation of the geopolitical imperatives of Australia and China is necessary to understand whether it is or is not inevitable that the two nations must engage in a great contest in the South Pacific, with Papua New Guinea (and the smaller island countries) caught in between.

Australia’s first geopolitical imperative, as the continent at the end of the South East Asian archipelago, is to maintain a stable balance in East Asia, on which it depends for its security and prosperity. Yet Australia as a middle power cannot alone ensure the security of the broader region. It therefore must work with partners to sustain regional stability and free trade – and its traditional partner has been the US. The rise of China, while enormously benefiting Australia economically, is naturally disrupting the strategic balance. Therefore Australia will need reassurance from China that its rise will strengthen regional stability and free trade.

Australia’s second geopolitical imperative is to sustain its alliance with the US and encourage active US engagement in preserving the strategic balance regionally and globally, underpinning free trade and the global rules-based order. Here, Australia is anxious. Not only has the US flipped from four decades of constructive engagement with China to strategic competition, but it has also turned populist and, under President Trump, begun to act in a manner that is dismissive of free trade and the global rules-based order from which Australia has benefited so strongly. Australia will not abandon the alliance that has underpinned its security for the entire post-war era. Australia will, however, need to focus on its national interests first and foremost, in particular in its immediate region.

Australia’s third geopolitical imperative (third only because it becomes of critical importance if either of the first two fail) is to secure the Australian continent and its approaches, through high population growth, defence self-reliance and maintaining stability in the South Pacific. Australia maintains defence superiority in its immediate region, is growing in population and has the wealth to build greater self-reliance to defend itself. But it has neglected the South Pacific for two decades, a region with weak governance, aid-dependent economies and facing an existential challenge from climate change. Geopolitical commentary about China’s presence in the South Pacific is adding to Australian anxiety.

There is nothing preventing Australia, with its abundant assets and good governance, from developing a grand strategy to meet its geopolitical imperatives. Australia has a strong track record of middle power leadership, building coalitions to shape its regional environment and to encourage major powers into cooperation, such as APEC. Australia is highly likely to be at the table as an active participant if the East Asian region develops a future grand bargain, or concert of powers, to ensure stability and prosperity. Australia’s alliance with the US also brings it broader influence and strategic depth, as long as the US remains focused on sustaining the balance in Asia. And Australia can certainly show more leadership in the South Pacific.

Yet Australia has suffered from a high turnover of leaders and a lack of strategic focus and policy continuity for a decade. Its current government has fallen back onto old habits of whipping up geopolitical panic for political purposes.

It is therefore important to separate the real issues from the day to day politics. Firstly, Australia will want to ensure that its military remains the predominant force in the South Pacific region and that any critical infrastructure is secure from foreign control. This is reasonable and, despite the media hyperbole, does not have to be interpreted as a contest with China. Both sides of politics in Australia have signaled a desire for increased leadership in the region and China could contribute to regional stability by signaling its acceptance of Australia’s leadership in the South Pacific.

Secondly, it is in Australia’s interests, as much as those of the Pacific island countries, to encourage sustainable development across the South Pacific region. China can be a partner here, as it has been for Australia in its massive economic expansion over recent decades. This is where Australia could change its language from the combative tone of recent months to signal its acceptance of China’s legitimate role as economic partner to the region.

It is necessary to also examine China’s strategic imperatives to understand whether China is intent on strategic control of the waters around the Australian continent and therefore heading to confrontation in the South Pacific.

China’s first geopolitical imperative is to ensure the stability and security of its nation, a vast and complex country which retains deep economic and other imbalances. That is why China’s focus is much more domestic than global, unlike the traditional great powers of recent centuries that sought foreign territories to control.

China’s second geopolitical imperative is to ensure access to land and maritime trade routes, as China continues to develop its economy and to build its trade and investment links to diverse partners across the world. This includes maintaining economic cooperation with the great global markets of Europe, North America and Asia, as well as developing new integration with developing economies along the Belt and Road, including the South Pacific.

China’s third geopolitical imperative (most critical if the first two fail) is to find a new global balance including in Asia. At present, China’s interests are well served by the global rules-based order, which has allowed it to rise and to prosper from open world markets. China is investing in larger and more modern military forces but is surrounded by strategic competitors, which constrains China from becoming a regional or global hegemon as previous great powers sought to be. China is likely to seek greater global and regional influence, including deeper and broader economic links, but appears unlikely to be the military threat to distant nations that geopolitical commentators fear.

So, the question is whether both Australia and China need to be wary of each other in the South Pacific, or whether they might be able to cooperate. Australia does have an overarching security imperative in the South Pacific, while China’s primary interest is economic.

Might Australia-China cooperation in the Pacific contribute to broader regional stability and economic development that meets the geopolitical imperatives of both countries? It seems to be at least possible, and the current narrative of strategic competition appears to be too simplistic. There is nothing inevitable about a contest between Australia and China in the region if both countries focus on their national interests and, not forgetting, of course, the interests of the sovereign governments of the Pacific.

Indeed, none of the small island nations wish to be treated like pawns in a bigger game; all will seek at least transactional benefits from the new attention from Australia as well as China, and all will want to keep the Pacific a region of peace.

The South Pacific should have significant growth potential. Papua New Guinea is resource-rich, other island nations have vast fishery resources and could be developed for high-earning tourism – if there were direct air links and adequate local infrastructure.

Australia’s new regional infrastructure focus could be complementary to China’s BRI in helping to realize this potential in the South Pacific. Firms from both Australia and China bring skills and experience to address the development needs of the region. There are political risks, to be sure, and Australia-China cooperation could help mitigate these risks, by ensuring projects are developed within sustainable debt repayment plans and according to the highest standards of governance and transparency to avoid corruption and other risks. Fundamental to getting new infrastructure right will be listening to the needs of the local communities and aligning new investment with the economic development that the Pacific islands themselves want. Both Australia and China have sometimes not listened closely enough; new cooperation models built in consultation with the region should help. And Australia-China cooperation in the South Pacific could provide a good model for how two very different nations can work together and indeed provide a model for reduction of political risk on the Belt and Road in general.

The Pacific islands are amongst the poorest, least developed nations on earth. They are distant from markets, sparsely populated and lacking the capacity to find solutions to their challenges such as climate change, chronic disease and aid dependency. At least the recent geopolitical flurry has put their region in the spotlight. Perhaps the strategic importance of the South Pacific can help, finally, to bring sustainable development and opportunities to its people.


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