Keeping super power influence in check in South Pacific

Yesterday on the Q+A programme Minister of Foreign Affairs, Winston Peters raised the issue that Chinese influence in the South Pacific is going to be a significant concern of this Government’s foreign policy. The remarks, which come at the start of a week long tour of the South Pacific where Mr Peters and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. will meet Pacific leaders, come against a backdrop of growing Chinese influence in a year where Chinese President Xi Jinping appears intent on becoming a 21st Century emperor.

China has been expanding its interest in the South Pacific for years. It has turned a blind eye to the Frank Bainimarama regime of Fiji committing human rights abuses against Fijians. In return for such activities being ignored, South Pacific nations have permitted Chinese mining and forestry companies to set up businesses on their lands. One might ask what the problem with this is?

Simple. These island nations will not see the economic benefits. They might be employed to work on building the roads, but there is unlikely to be any sharing of the royalties taken from the business. It also remains to be seen how much tax if any that the Chinese companies will be made to pay to their Governments so they can provide basic services for their people.

It is not to say that Western companies are any better. The Ok Tedi mine where tonnes of pure copper sulphate solution was allowed to pour straight into the local river, completely destroying the ecosystem is one example of a mine project gone bad in Papua New Guinea. The company responsible was B.H.P. Billiton. Whilst litigation of the case happened and resulted in a $29 million pay out in the 1990’s the environmental, economic and social costs of the damage will take an estimated 300 years to fix.

These countries have very weak legal systems, and endemic corruption at all levels. Because of this, several South Pacific Island nations are potentially at risk of becoming failed states with governance that simply does not work properly any more. The corruption means that there is a risk that organized crime or militants linked to terrorist groups might use these nations as a back door into Australia and New Zealand.

All nations are quite vulnerable to climate change and the outlying parts of Kiribati, Tuvalu, Niue are at risk of becoming uninhabitable in the next 50 years. Over fishing and deforestation are also likely to impact on their economies.

This is where New Zealand and Australia become very important players. As the regional powers with the means to influence the United States and China, both nations have an obligation to look after their smaller Pacific Island neighbours and act as role models in terms of how their governance should be in an ideal world. Right now neither nation is doing a particularly good job of this – following the Papua New Guinea earthquake last week, Australia has so far only just begun to move relief supplies in; New Zealand to the best of my knowledge has not yet done anything at all.

Mr Peters will also be well aware of the growing influence of the United States on Australia. Mr Trump, who is unlikely to be received by South Pacific island leaders strongly denies climate change, which many cite as a key problem for them. Instead, Mr Trump seems more in the sphere of influence that Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull promotes. Mr Turnbull’s Government has shown open skepticism of climate change, and both view China as a common problem. In “making America great again” by promoting policies that put America first Mr Trump seems to be putting America on a collision course with China.

Thus far the South Pacific island nations have not featured strongly on Mr Trump’s agenda. How long that is the case remains to be seen. Should Mr Trump become fixated on these little nations, the other question is context.

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