A bridge too far.

Headline: A bridge too far. – 36th Parallel Assessments

Jiaozhou Bay/Qingdao-Haiwan Bridge, China. Photo: Feel the Planet (feel-planet.com).

The Labour-led government in New Zealand has settled on a new mantra when it comes to addressing the US-China rivalry. It claims that New Zealand is ideally situated to become a bridge between the two great powers and an honest broker when it comes to their interaction with the Southwest Pacific. This follows the long-held multi-party consensus that New Zealand’s foreign policy is independent and autonomous, and based on respect for international norms and multinational institutions.

The problem is that the new foreign policy line is a misleading illusion. It ignores historical precedent, the transitional nature of the current international context, the character and strategic objectives of the US and the PRC and the fact that New Zealand is neither independent or autonomous in its foreign affairs.

The historical precedent is that in times of conflict between great powers, small states find it hard to remain neutral and certainly do not serve as bridges between them. The dilemma is exemplified by the island of Melos during the Peloponnesian Wars, when Melos expressed neutrality between warring Athens and Sparta. Although Sparta accepted its position Athens did not and Melos was subjugated by the Athenians.

In stable world times small states may exercise disproportionate influence in global affairs because the geopolitical status quo is set and systemic changes are incremental and occur within the normative framework and around the margins of the system as given. When international systems are unstable and in transition, small states are relegated to the sidelines while great powers hash out the contours of the emerging world order—often via conflict. Such is the case now, which has seen the unipolar system dominated by the US that followed the bi-polar Cold War now being replaced by an emerging multi-polar system aggregating new and resurgent powers, some of which are hostile to the West.

In this transitional moment the US is in relative decline and has turned inward under a Trump administration that is polarizing at home and abroad. It is still a formidable economic and military power but it is showing signs of internal weakness and external exhaustion that have made it more reactive and defensive in its approach to global affairs. China is a rising great power with global ambition and long-term strategic plans, particularly when it comes to power projection in the Western Pacific Rim. It sees itself as the new regional power in Asia, replacing the US, and has extended its influence world-wide.That includes involvement in the domestic politics and economic matters of Pacific Island states, including Australia and New Zealand.

China’s rise and the US decline are most likely to first meet in the Western Pacific. When they do, the consequences will be far reaching. Already the US has started a trade war with the Chinese while reinforcing its armed presence in the region at a time when China cannot (as of yet) militarily challenge it. China has responded by deepening its dollar and debt diplomacy in Polynesia and Melanesia as part of the Belt and Road initiative, now paralleled by an increased naval and air presence extending from the South and East China Seas into the blue water shipping lanes of the Pacific.

There lies the rub. New Zealand is neither independent or autonomous when it confronts this emerging strategic landscape. Instead, it has dichotomized its foreign policy. On the security front, it is militarily tied to the US via the Wellington and Washington Declarations of 2010 and 2012. It is a founding member and integral component of the Anglophone 5 Eyes signal intelligence gathering network led by the US. It is deeply embedded in broader Western security networks, whose primary focus of concern, beyond terrorism, is the hostile activities of China and Russia against liberal democracies and their interests.

On trade, New Zealand has an addict-like dependency on agricultural commodity and primary good exports, particularly milk solids. Its largest trading partner and importer of those goods is China. Unlike Australia, which can leverage its export of strategic minerals that China needs for its continued economic growth and industrial ambitions under the China 2025 program, New Zealand’s exports are elastic, substitutable by those of competitors and inconsequential to China’s broader strategic planning. This makes New Zealand extremely vulnerable to Chinese economic retaliation for any perceived slight, something that the Chinese have been clear to point out when it comes to subjects such as the South China island-building dispute or Western concerns about the true nature of Chinese developmental aid to Pacific Island Forum countries.

As a general rule issue linkage is the best approach to trade and security: trading partners make for good security partners because their interests are complementary (security protects trade and trade brings with it the material prosperity upon which security is built). Absent that, separating and running trade and security relations in parallel is practicable because the former do not interfere with the latter and vice versa. But when trade and security relations are counterpoised, that is, when a country trades preferentially with one antagonist while maintaining security ties with another, then the makings of a foreign policy conundrum are made. This is exactly the situation New Zealand finds itself in, or what can be called a self-made “Melian dilemma.”

Under such circumstances it is delusional to think that New Zealand can serve as a bridge between the US and China, or as an honest broker when it comes to great power projection in the Southwest Pacific. Instead, it is diplomatically caught between a rock and a hard place even though in practice it leans more West than East.

The latter is an important point. Although a Pacific island nation, New Zealand is, by virtue of its colonial and post-colonial history, a citizen of the West. The blending of Maori and Pacifika culture gave special flavor to the Kiwi social mix but it never strayed from its Western orientation during its modern history. That, however, began to change with the separation of trade from security relations as of the 1980s (where New Zealand began to seek out non-Western trade partners after its loss of preferred trade status with UK markets), followed by increasingly large waves of non-European immigration during the next three decades. Kiwi culture has begun to change significantly in recent years and so with it its international orientation. Western perspectives now compete with Asian and Middle Eastern orientations in the cultural milieu, something that has crept into foreign policy debates and planning. The question is whether the new cultural mix will eventuate in a turn away from Western values and towards those of Eurasia.

The government’s spin may just be short term diplomatic nicety posing as a cover for its dichotomous foreign policy strategy. Given its soft-peddling of the extent of Chinese influence operations in the country, it appears reluctant to confront the PRC on any contentious issue because it wants to keep trade and diplomatic lines open. Likewise, its silence on Trump’s regressions on climate change, Trans-Pacific trade and support for international institutions may signal that the New Zealand government is waiting for his departure before publicly engaging the US on matters of difference. Both approaches may be prudent but are certainly not examples of bridging or brokering.

While New Zealand audiences may like it, China and the US are not fooled by the bridge and broker rhetoric. They know that should push come to shove New Zealand will have to make a choice. One involves losing trade revenues, the other involves losing security guarantees. One involves backing a traditional ally, the other breaking with tradition in order to align with a rising power. Neither choice will be pleasant and it behooves foreign policy planners to be doing cost/benefits analysis on each because the moment of decision may be closer than expected.

Analysis syndicated by 36th Parallel Assessments

MIL OSI – Source: Evening Report Arts and Media

‘Rethink’ say ABC friends condemning Canberra’s Pacific media plan

Professional broadcasting in the Pacific depends on “two-way respectful communication” that enhances understanding of diverse perspectives in the region, says the ABC Friends group. Image: vizit.com

Pacific Media Watch Newsdesk

A public broadcasting advocacy group has condemned Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s plan to commercialise Pacific broadcasting as not being able to provide quality public interest journalism to the country’s neighbours.

Supporters of Australian Broadcasting in Asia and the Pacific, a group linked to ABC Friends, has asked Morrison to rethink his plans.

“If Mr Morrison wants to restore a fresh initiative like the Australia Network he is dependent on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation which has the experience and professionalism to create strong partnerships with Pacific nations,” the supporters statement said.

READ MORE: Morrison to unveil broad suite of measures to boost Australia’s influence in the Pacific

“The voice of Australia through Radio Australia, and more recently via a wider range of ABC media platforms, has long been valued by people in the Pacific and many ABC broadcasters have become popular in the region.”

Australian foreign policy would not be enhanced by the “commercial news judgements of Fox or Sky News”, which did not provide independent analysis of complex issues.

-Partners-

Professional broadcasting in the Pacific depended on “two-way respectful communication” that enhanced understanding of diverse perspectives in the region, the advocacy group said.

Clear expectations
In recent months Pacific leaders had made clear their expectations of Australian/Pacific public broadcasting:

  • Vanuatu Prime Minister Charlot Salwal has called for rebuilding public interest broadcasting;
  • In a speech to the Lowy Institute, Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sa’ilele Malielegaoi had called for the Pacific voice to be heard in Australia; and
  • Other Pacific leaders had echoed this call, as well as Secretary-General of the South Pacific Forum.

“Significantly, if Australia were to accept this approach to Pacific broadcasting it would become the only nation to rely on the commercial sector to deliver its ‘soft power’ diplomacy.

“Just imagine Canada or Britain giving such a significant national task to commercial interests!” said the statement.

ABC Friends national president Margaret Reynolds urged Prime Minister Morrison to reconsider this public policy shift and take advice from the Department of Foreign Affairs which was more familiar with the needs of Pacific nations and managing diplomatic relations.

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MIL OSI – Source: Evening Report Arts and Media

Confronting Sharp Power.

Headline: Confronting Sharp Power. – 36th Parallel Assessments

Source: http://akross.info/?k=List+of+magical+weapons++Wikipedia

International relations is about exercising power to achieve objectives on the global stage. The actors that do so are states, companies, non-governmental organizations or criminal and non-state political actors acting directly or as proxies. The tools they employ have traditionally included hard power, which is the threat and use of diplomatic, economic and military coercion; soft power, which involves the persuasive appeal of diplomatic, cultural and economic engagement; and smart power, which is a hybrid, carrot and stick approach where hard and soft power is combined into a package of positive and negative incentives for cooperation and dissuasion. International norms are designed to encourage soft and smart power solutions to contentious issues, with hard power used as the weapon of last resort.

Recently a new form of approach has emerged on the world scene, one that is wielded by authoritarian regimes that seek to alter or undermine the ideological consensus and institutional stability of liberal democracies. It is called sharp power.

Sharp power is an extension of smart power but with a subversive, norm-violating twist. Its purpose is to condition the internal narrative of democratic states in ways that are favorable to the authoritarian state employing it. This includes influence operations like those used by the People’s Republic of China in New Zealand, where so-called United Front organizations (such as community organizations and business associations) are employed as “magical weapons” designed to influence the way in which New Zealand political and economic elites view the world system and more specifically, to align these elites with Chinese positions on international affairs. Taking advantage of opaque campaign finance laws, financial donations have been used by Chinese front organizations as a means of currying favor in the New Zealand political system, much in the way the PRC’s so-called cheque book diplomacy has shifted foreign policy perspectives throughout the community of Pacific island states.

Sharp power also includes undertaking disruption operations where, via cyber-hacking and disinformation campaigns on social media, popular faith in the institutions governing everyday life are undermined. These include the placement of so-called fake news stories in major social media outlets, malicious hacking of banking systems and government bureaucracies responsible for basic public good provision, and hidden control of targeted media outlets. These malevolent activities run in parallel and at times overlap with traditional espionage and influence operations in a multi-faceted strategy aimed at subverting the ideological and institutional foundations of democratic societies. A loss of faith and trust in liberal democracy is seen as a win by the sharp power-wielders.

Although the government has soft-peddled the issue, the GCSB has given three warnings this year about disruption activities undertaken by foreign states that have an impact on New Zealand.

More darkly, sharp power has been deployed with murderous or criminal intent. Be it recent Russian poisoning campaigns against dissidents and renegade intelligence agents in the UK, the murder of a Saudi journalist by state agents in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, the killing of Kim Jung-un’s half brother in the Kuala Lumpur airport or the physical intimidation of expat Chinese communities in Australia, authoritarians have grown bolder in flouting international norms on sovereignty and non-intervention. Even New Zealand may have been touched by such authoritarian interference: the burglaries of the home and office of an academic critic of the PRC’s foreign influence operations are believed to have likely been carried out at the behest or on behalf of the Chinese state since no valuables were taken while research tools and materials were. New Zealand security authorities have stated that the investigation has moved overseas and been transferred to INTERPOL, the international police agency. That means that the perpetrators are believed to have left New Zealand, something that would be unusual for local common criminals given the low level of the crime and the nature of what was taken.

But let there be no mistake: if the involve a foreign power, the burglaries of Ann Marie Brady’s home and office are crimes committed on sovereign New Zeaaland soil and therefore a step up from influence operations and into direct intimidation of a New Zealand citizen and her family.

All of this occurs against a backdrop where strong authoritarian states like the PRC and Russia have brazenly violated international norms by laying claim to, built islands on and militarily fortified reefs in international waters while ignoring international arbitration decisions against it (China in the South China Sea) or seized and annexed large swathes of a neighbors territory in the face of international condemnation (Russia is Georgia and the Ukraine). The Saudis are leading a vicious war in Yemen against Iranian-backed rebels in which war crimes are committed on industrial scale. Myanmar’s military is engaged in the ethnic cleansing of its Rohinga community, causing a multi-national humanitarian crisis. These and scores of authoritarian atrocities go unpunished because the liberal democratic world has neither the will or the capabilities to stop them. That is a weakness that authoritarians seek to exploit with their sharp power projection, and in this they may have been encouraged by the US abandonment of its support for the liberal institutional world order under the Trump administration.

The question is how to respond to the use of sharp power against New Zealand? As a small, economically vulnerable state that is dependent on trade in agricultural commodity exports, tourism and foreign student education from a number of authoritarian states, particularly the PRC, New Zealand has to tread delicately when confronting violations of its sovereignty and/or overt or covert meddling in its internal affairs. On the other hand, as a staunch supporter of the rule of law and norm adherence in international affairs as well as a long-term member of the community of mature liberal democracies, New Zealand cannot afford to cast a blind on on such offenses less it encourage more and from other actors as well. In fact, its response has to be both broad and specific, with it coupling repudiation for international norm violations as a matter of principle with specific targeted remedies taken against those who employ sharp power on New Zealand soil or against its interests.

It is a conundrum that will not be resolved easily.

Analysis syndicated by 36th Parallel Assessments

MIL OSI – Source: Evening Report Arts and Media

Canberra’s new PM Morrison has little foreign policy, Pacific interest

Prime Minister Scott Morrison will not be at the Pacific Islands Forum in Nauru next week. He needs to rely heavily on the experience of his new Foreign Minister, Marise Payne, and deputy leader, Josh Frydenberg. Image: Andrew Taylor/The Conversation/AAP

By Susan Harris Rimmer in Brisbane

With all the focus this week on new Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s domestic challenges, less attention has been paid to the international impact of the leadership change and any new directions for Australian foreign policy.

Morrison’s foreign policy credentials are slim and his interest in foreign policy is low, not rating even a mention in his first speech to the nation as PM.

As immigration minister, Morrison presided over the “stop the boats” policy that was so unpopular with Australia’s Asia-Pacific neighbours and negotiated the disastrous and expensive Cambodia asylum deal.

READ MORE: Julie Bishop goes to backbench, Marise Payne becomes new foreign minister

He may also be perceived by Muslim-majority nations as unfriendly to Muslims after the 2011 shadow cabinet leak that he urged his party to capitalise on the electorate’s growing concerns about immigration and Muslims in Australia.

It is therefore a good idea indeed that Morrison will make his first trip overseas as prime minister this week to Jakarta to hasten the Australia and Indonesia free-trade agreement and shore up one of our country’s most crucial relationships.

-Partners-

There are other big trips he’ll need to make quick decisions about. Morrison has already decided not to attend the Pacific Islands Forum in Nauru next week, sending his new foreign minister, Marise Payne, instead.

After that, there’s the UN General Assembly in New York (September 24), the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Papua New Guinea (November 12), the East Asia Summit in Singapore (November 14) and the G20 summit in Buenos Aires (November 30).

An Australian PM would usually attend all of these, although the Coalition has often sent the foreign minister to the UN.

New leader, same outlook
In many ways, Morrison’s foreign policy positions are unlikely to be different from Malcolm Turnbull’s. He will likely be perceived as friendly to the US and unfriendly to China on foreign investment, but a realist and pro-free trade.

Morrison made a dramatic intervention in 2016 to block Chinese companies from bidding for the NSW electricity distributor, Ausgrid, on national security grounds.

As acting home affairs minister last week, Morrison also announced the government’s decision to effectively ban Chinese companies Huawei and ZTE from participating in Australia’s new 5G mobile phone networks. In reality, though, the Turnbull reset on the China relationship is likely to continue, as guided by the Foreign Policy White Paper.

The leadership change was not predicated on policy disagreements, with the exception of different ideologies on climate change. The change was rather more personality-driven, a question of style. But style – and leaders – matter in diplomacy.

Many foreign policy experts have been distraught by the damage done to Australia’s international reputation by such disruptive spills, and how external messaging on good governance will be undermined.

The big loss here is Julie Bishop, who has been a point of stability and continuity for Australia’s international partners since 2009, when she became shadow foreign minister. The sudden, inexplicable loss of both Turnbull and Bishop will be hard for our allies (and most Australians) to understand.

Bishop will be remembered for her path-breaking role as the first female foreign minister and first female secretary of DFAT. Her legacy also includes the New Colombo Plan, her push for e-diplomacy and her passionate quest for justice for the victims of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17.

She did face criticism – as did the Coalition more broadly – for the inability or unwillingness to defend the aid budget from deep cuts, an asylum seeker policy that affected our international reputation, and an unwillingness to speak out on human rights, such as against Myanmar’s leaders.

Morrison’s support team
Bishop’s loss is ameliorated by two factors – the appointment of Payne and the influence of Josh Frydenberg in the leadership team.

Frydenberg, the new deputy Liberal leader and treasurer, has a strong interest and inclination for foreign policy, having worked for former Foreign Minister Alexander Downer. He was very active in the Brisbane G20 Summit in 2014. He is even a published author on the liberal tradition in Australian foreign policy.

Frydenberg’s maiden speech contained a particularly beautiful narrative about how his family suffered during the Holocaust in Europe and later emigrated to Australia.

Like so many other immigrants to our great shores, all of my grandparents came here with nothing. … The welcome my family received and the opportunities and freedom they enjoyed is for me the essence of what makes Australia great.

The G20 Summit in Argentina in November is the best opportunity for Morrison and Frydenberg to shine in the international sphere. Given his newly-elevated platform at the summit, Morrison may have to moderate his constant criticism of “the new romantics of protectionism” and dislike of the World Trade Organisation.

Morrison and Frydenberg should also pay heed to the difficult negotiations around the Australia-EU free-trade agreement.

Payne positive appointment
Payne’s appointment as foreign minister is also seen as a positive, as is Simon Birmingham’s elevation to trade minister. Both are hardworking, reasonable politicians from the moderate wing of the Liberal party who can manage stakeholders well. Hopefully, they will have time before the next election to bring their own style to the positions.

Mark Coulton remains assistant minister for trade, tourism and investment. He has yet to make much impact since being appointed in March, but has a welcome focus on Papua New Guinea, host of APEC.

Anne Ruston has been appointed assistant minister for international development and the Pacific. She has voted in the past against increases in foreign aid and has limited experience in the region.

She should follow the example of Richard Marles, who did exemplary work in this portfolio, garnering respect in the Pacific. This role could become more difficult with Morrison deciding not to attend the Pacific Islands Forum.

Morrison should rely on Payne and Birmingham to manage Australia’s foreign policy and pay special attention to rebuilding our reputation for good governance. There is hard work to be done, and little time to do it.

is Australian Research Council Future Fellow, Griffith Law School, Griffith University. Disclosure: She receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is affiliated as a national board member with the International Women’s Development Agency. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence.

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MIL OSI – Source: Evening Report Arts and Media

Ralph Regenvanu: Pacific regionalism, climate finance and women in politics

Tess Newton Cain talks to Ralph Regenvanu

During a recent trip to Port Vila, Tess Newton Cain caught up with Ralph Regenvanu, Minister for Foreign Affairs, International Cooperation and External Trade in the Vanuatu government.

Regenvanu describes himself as a Port Vila citizen. He has lived for most of his life in the capital of Vanuatu, other than for a period of time when he was studying in Australia (he holds an honours degree in anthropology and development studies from the Australian National University (ANU).

He spent more than a decade as director of the Vanuatu Cultural Centre, prior to a return to university in 2007, this time to study law at the University of the South Pacific. Then his political career took off:

Halfway through my degree, I stood for election, and I got in at the end of 2008 as an independent candidate. And myself and the others who were with me in the political journey set up the Graon mo Jastis Pati in 2010.

This is Minister Regenvanu’s third term in Parliament and he has held a number of portfolios since 2008. He took over as Minister for Foreign Affairs in December 2017.

So, what are Vanuatu’s foreign policy priorities and what would he like to see his ministry achieve during his tenure as its leader? Significantly, the minister points to internal matters as being more significant than external issues:

-Partners-

The biggest issues of this ministry are not so much external issues. The biggest issues of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs are the internal coordination of the government so that we can strategically approach our international relations and diplomacy. So, at the moment, it is quite difficult to effectively strategise about how Vanuatu places itself in the world, especially the most important thing for us on the horizon is the LDC graduation in 2020.

More opportunities
The minister explained that he thinks there are more opportunities for Vanuatu to work strategically bilaterally, regionally and globally. This is what will be required as the impacts of Least Developed Country (LDC) graduation take effect after 2020.

Therefore, he is focused on getting the internal infrastructure right between his ministry, the Prime Minister’s Office (which is responsible for aid coordination), the Ministry of Finance and Economic Management, and the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Forestry, Fisheries and Biosecurity (which has carriage of the EDF11 program).

Politics in Vanuatu and voter behaviour tends to focus on the hyper-local issues so how can the work of the Foreign Minister and his Ministry be translated into messages that resonate with the urban voters of Port Vila, which is where Minister Regenvanu’s constituency sits?

…the best way to really make people appreciate our foreign relations is, of course, all the aid projects, right? And being able to show that they are well chosen, have high impact on the lives of people, that they’re conducted in a manner which is transparent, and they’re done efficiently. And that brings me back to what I originally said about being very strategic in how we organise ourselves internally to get projects, attract the right kind of projects and the right kind of conditions that we want.

The second aspect of foreign affairs that the minister believes resonates with voters is one that is essentially part of the DNA of Vanuatu:

There is, of course, the very popular issue in Vanuatu of West Papua, and that’s also something which governments need to take heed of, in terms of the very, very popular support for the independence of West Papua in Vanuatu, which is translated into one of our foreign affairs objectives.

A third, emerging, narrative is around the growing awareness of the impacts of climate change in Vanuatu. On that note, we discussed recent statements the minister had made regarding climate finance and, in particular, the issue of compensation for loss and damage.

Frustration over key issues
He expressed a certain amount of frustration with the actions (or lack thereof) of developed countries in relation to some key issues:

You’ve got to play the game that you yourself agreed to. So, when it comes to the Green Climate Fund, for example,… it’s a very poor effort by the developed countries who’ve said that they would contribute. Let alone, talking about loss and damage, which has absolutely no contributions, even though that was also an agreement made by all the countries…

I reminded the minister he had previously expressed to me a degree of scepticism about the value of regional organisations such as the Pacific Islands Forum and the Pacific Islands Development Forum (PIDF). What are his current views on this?

I think the Pacific Islands Forum is definitely useful, especially in terms of articulating common positions and being a conduit for development finance, accessing larger facilities and so on… I can’t say the same about the MSG [Melanesian Spearhead Group]. I think the MSG is… it’s disappointing, to say the least and there’s a question of its relevance.

The minister accepts that Vanuatu has a particular interest in the MSG, but says that ongoing support depends on management decisions made in the next little while. While the decision on the membership application of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP) is top of that list, there are other concerns around management of the organisation as well. As for the PIDF?

We’re currently not a member. And we’re just — I suppose we’re just watching it to see — we’re really more invested in the Forum at this stage.

Last, but not least, we turned to the issue of increased participation of women in political decision-making. This is an issue on which Minister Regenvanu has long been very vocal. Further to his contribution to getting temporary special measures included in municipal elections in Port Vila and Luganville, what is next in this space?

Gender political space
…the next step is going for political party legislation, which is what we’re working on now, to get a new bill through Parliament, which provides for the regulation of political parties. At the moment, we have nothing like that in Vanuatu. So, just a very simple law that says you have to register a political party according to certain criteria… And then in that legislation, I think, is room to create measures… by which women can get more representation.

Minister Regenvanu continues to be a prominent and influential member of the Vanuatu Parliament and government. We will be watching his political progress with interest.

Dr Tess Newton Cain is the principal of TNC Pacific Consulting and is a visiting fellow at the Development Policy Centre in the Crawford School of Public Policy at the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University. She is a citizen of Vanuatu where she lived for almost 20 years and is now based in Brisbane.

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MIL OSI – Source: Evening Report Arts and Media

Dan McGarry: Want to lead in the Pacific? Try listening first

MIL OSI – Source: Evening Report Arts and Media

Headline: Dan McGarry: Want to lead in the Pacific? Try listening first

Cathy Wilcox’s Sydney Morning Herald cartoon is a showcase for everything that’s wrong with Australian foreign policy. Cartoon: Cathy Wilcox/SMH/VDP

By Dan McGarry in Port Vila

The average Australian’s conception of Pacific island nations is so limited it makes some of us wonder if they even want to understand. Our voices—and our reality—have been pointedly and repeatedly ignored in the media, and in the corridors of power.

An Australian news service breathlessly proclaims Chinese plans to build a military base only a short flight away from Brisbane, and the Canberra commentariat has kittens.

Vanuatu insiders say “it was never on the cards”.

“Yes, but it was discussed!” insist defence analysts.

“A base was never discussed and it would never happen,” says Vanuatu’s Foreign Minister.

“Yes, but a Chinese military presence is in the works!” insist the same analysts.

-Partners-

“Vanuatu would never agree to this and anyone who says otherwise is indulging in malicious speculation,” says Vanuatu’s Prime Minister.

“Cold warriors”
“Here’s the wharf where it’s going to happen!” announce Australian media, and a chorus of “cold warriors” claim that Australia is forsaking its God-given leadership role in the Pacific.

“We, uh, have our own leaders,” say Pacific islanders.

“Yes, but they’re drowning your countries in debt!” cry the politicos.

“Well, we’re not perfect, but there’s no crisis,” say our analysts. “Our debt to GDP ratio is less than half of Australia’s.”

“China is slyly using debt/equity swaps to take over your infrastructure!” Canberra cries.

“No, actually. Our loans don’t contain language that would allow that,” reply the islanders, who by this time are wondering why they even bother saying anything.

The Chinese Bases folderol is just the latest chorus in a litany of Australian indifference to Pacific voices. Every time some tendentious prat opens their mouth and starts telling the Pacific that what’s good for Australia is obviously good for us, the entire region sighs.

Collective eye roll
That jolt you just felt was a collective eye roll that nearly tipped the island.

Can we get something clear? If you want us to listen to you, you’ve got to listen to us.

It may have escaped your attention, but there was an earthquake in Papua New Guinea recently.

It affected over half a million people, killing 150 outright and leaving 270,000 in need of humanitarian assistance. The situation remains desperate, and the breakdown of law and order in some areas has made it impossible for aid organisations to work.

You can be forgiven for not knowing this. There were no Chinese warships involved.

As you read this, massive ash falls from an active volcano are forcing 11,000 Ni-Vanuatu to relocate for the second time in six months. Thousands may never return home. No Chinese warships were involved, so again, you might not have heard.

Make no mistake: When the Pacific is in need, Australia helps. It helps more than any other nation. But the overwhelming majority of Australians don’t seem to know or care that it does.

They don’t know
If they knew, they’d probably care. But they don’t know, so they have no reason to care.

This is the fault of the media. Specifically, it’s an editorial failure. Reporters are champing at the bit to share our stories, but producers and editors constantly baulk at the time and expense of reporting from and about the Pacific islands.

On the morning Vanuatu announced the evacuation of 11,000 people from the volcanic island of Ambae, the journos who broke the Chinese base story were still in Vanuatu. When told the news, they doubted that Fairfax would pay for them to go to Ambae to report on the exodus.

This is the same company that gladly paid a team to spend a week reporting on a defence analyst’s fever dreams, someone whom the team members themselves admitted might be paranoid.

The main difference between Beijing and Canberra is that Beijing listens. For better or for worse, Chinese diplomats listen to what Pacific leaders want. Often enough, they give it to them.

And more often than not, Australian pollies wait patiently for Pacific Islanders to finish speaking, then tell them what they need. There is a pervasive and deeply pernicious perception in the foreign policy establishment that Pacific voices don’t count.

Political cartoon
A recent political cartoon in the Sydney Morning Herald distils the attitude prettily.

An island with nothing but a grass shack and a few benighted dark people is deserted by its erstwhile benefactors, and left to the tender mercies of a shipload of Asian hucksters.

Without Julie Bishop and Malcolm Turnbull and the gang, we’re left helplessly clutching our cowrie shells.

The image is so absurdly parochial it borders on outright racism.

Who benefits from these Chinese wharves? We do! The people of Vanuatu. You might have heard of us. We live here.

Beginning this week, that wharf will be the landing point for thousands of people displaced by natural disaster. Australian relief ships will no doubt be welcomed, too.

Let’s see how many headlines our devastated lives derive.

My guess is zero—unless we invite the Chinese navy to help.

Dan McGarry is media director of the Vanuatu Daily Post group. This article is republished with permission.

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