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21 April 2015
by Matt Thistlethwaite

Pacific debate an opportunity for collaboration with China

Debate is again raging about Australia's role in the Pacific.

It has recently been reported that the Fijian Government has insisted it will not re-join the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) until Australia or New Zealand is kicked out and consideration is given to admitting China. This is a debate that Fiji's newly elected Government want to have.

The reality is the membership of the Pacific Islands Forum is a decision for its members; the 16 island nations, including Australia and New Zealand that have an equal say in the Forum's future.

Both Australia and New Zealand are founding members – Australia provides more than half the PIF's running costs – and play a well-respected role in the region.

Regarding Fiji's agitation, to defuse the situation Foreign Minister Julie Bishop suggested a meeting of Pacific leaders in Sydney in March to discuss the architecture of the Forum and how it "best meets the needs of the region in the 21st Century".
The meeting never went ahead due to a lack of participants.
Australia and New Zealand will remain members of the PIF.

However, the debate about the increasing role of China in the Pacific should not be ignored.

Australia needs to begin engaging with China and other Asian nations about collaboration and cooperation in the Pacific, particularly when it comes to aid expenditure and delivery.

Already some development aid associated with infrastructure in the region has led to problems through vanity projects with no real development value and soft loans raising levels of indebtedness. Chinese insistence on the use of their companies for projects has led to social unrest and claims of insufficient environmental protection, not to mention a lack of transparency and accountability.

Beijing's aid budget in the Pacific has grown dramatically in recent years having spent about US$1.4 billion since 2006. In November 2013, the Chinese Government announced a new assistance package for the Pacific Islands, potentially worth more than US$2 billion. The package is made up of two loan facilities for use in infrastructure development, of up to US$1 billion each.

China's eagerness to become more involved in the region should be welcomed. It also provides Australia with an opportunity to discuss greater collaboration and cooperation regarding development in the Pacific.

Labor in Government laid the foundation for this to occur when we signed the historic Australia-China Development Cooperation Memorandum of Understanding in April 2013. Together Australia and China are working on aid projects, the first being combatting drug resistant malaria in Papua New Guinea.

If Australia and China could share information about our aid programs in the Pacific and work cooperatively on development priorities the effectiveness of aid expenditure in the region will be increased, and the volatility of aid expenditure will be reduced.

This is key to long term stability of Pacific Government budgets and ultimate improvements in living standards.

Greater collaboration will also bring improved transparency of aid expenditure which is an important element in the fight against corruption in Pacific nations.

It should always be the objective of aid programs that they improve general living standards, not enrich a few individuals.

Australia belatedly becoming a member of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank also provides an opportunity for our nations to collaborate on improving Pacific infrastructure particularly as these vulnerable nations come to grips with the destructive force of climate change. There are many roads and bridges that are currently being or will need to be moved or rebuilt as sea level rise and extreme weather events become more destructive in the Pacific.

Both our nations' relationship with the Pacific provides the opportunity for our governments, private sectors and NGO's to work together. This should not only improve development outcomes in the Pacific. It will strengthen the relationship between Australia and China.

A prime example of what President Xi calls win-win cooperation.