THE federal government fears the expansion of Chinese influence in the South Pacific and sees Beijing’s growing role coming at Australia’s expense. However, Australian diplomats have worked to wind back Taiwanese activity and have supported Chinese efforts to eradicate Taipei’s remaining diplomatic toeholds in the Pacific.
Secret US embassy cables leaked to WikiLeaks show the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Kevin Rudd, has privately viewed China’s growing economic and diplomatic activity as a direct challenge to Australia’s south Pacific interests.
Australian concerns about China’s Pacific ambitions are shared by US diplomats. US embassies in Fiji and Port Moresby report on the ”international diplomatic chess match” being played by China and Taiwan.
While a ”fervent intention to isolate Taiwan diplomatically looms large”, US diplomats think that China is pursuing a broad South Pacific strategy that includes ”the search for natural resources, including fish … desires to gain influence over Pacific-island votes in international fora and, more generally, to demonstrate big-power status in the region”.
The Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s attendance at a China-Pacific economic development forum in Fiji in April 2006 was seen as a watershed in Beijing’s regional engagement, signalling ”a strong intent by China to strengthen its political influence in the region”.
However, US and Australian diplomats have been deeply concerned about the role of Taiwan’s ”dollar diplomacy” in fuelling corruption and instability in South Pacific countries.
Taiwanese representatives admitted that they were ”under increasing pressure … to keep pace with China’s escalating involvement”.
In April 2006, US diplomats reported ”Canberra demarched the Taiwan representative in Australia, pressing Taiwan to stop engaging in destabilising activities in the Solomon Islands. Taiwan’s initial response was a firm denial of any impropriety. Subsequently, the Taiwan representative clarified to Australia that funds legitimately provided by Taiwan to the government of the Solomon Islands may possibly have been misused.”
Australia protested against a proposal for Taiwan to provide police training for the Solomon Islands, prompting Taiwanese officials to complain that there was a ”misunderstanding”, and that Taipei had no plan to provide weapons training or weapons to the Solomon Islands police.
Australia and the US urged Taipei to decline a request by Fiji’s military regime for arms and military equipment following Commodore Frank Bainimarama’s December 2006 coup.
A US embassy cable records that in January 2007 the Taiwan Trade Mission in Fiji was approached by the Fiji military with requests for arms and military equipment together with continuation of a $1 million per year Taiwanese ”slush fund” provided to the Fijian prime minister’s office. Both Washington and Canberra successfully lobbied Taipei to reject the proposed weapons shipment.
The leaked US cables also report that Australia has unsuccessfully sought to persuade Nauru and the Solomon Islands to abandon diplomatic relations with Taiwan.
However, US diplomats suggest that China’s path in the Pacific ”may not be smooth”.
”Island leaders have observed that some big-ticket offers, like debt relief, are basically smoke and mirrors,” the US Embassy in Fiji observed. ”The region chafes at [the] sometimes crude Chinese efforts to turn off any dealings with Taiwan.
”Other relationships, including with Australia, New Zealand, the EU, and the US, are longer lasting and remain productive. Nonetheless, China … has a seat at the Pacific table, and all other players must factor that into future bets.”