New “foreign influence” laws were passed by federal parliament on 28 June, along with increased police powers relating to espionage and sabotage of infrastructure. The laws purport to counter the pernicious effect of overseas countries, specifically China, on Australian democracy.
“Media reports have suggested that the Chinese Communist Party has been working to covertly interfere with our media, our universities and even the decisions of elected representatives”, prime minister Malcolm Turnbull warned. He pledged that these dealings would be “exposed to sunlight”.
Labor supported the new laws, despite concerns from the Greens and groups such as Amnesty International that they could be used against the media, critics of the government or protesters such as anti-Adani mine campaigners.
It’s hard to know how seriously the government takes its own rhetoric about Chinese interference in Australia. Perhaps it’s just an attempt to inspire racist paranoia. But it is completely serious about China’s growing influence on other countries in the Asia-Pacific.
Under the Belt and Road Initiative, China is financing up to $1 trillion of infrastructure projects globally, including in Australia’s immediate region. But the BRI is about more than infrastructure spending. The BRI is to be the foundation of a global trade and political network centred on China. In time, it could rival the existing international system of trade and diplomacy dominated by the United States and its allies such as Australia.
Australia – defender of Pacific sovereignty?
When Papua New Guinea signed on to the BRI last month, foreign minister Julie Bishop warned of a Chinese takeover. If recipient countries are “trapped into unsustainable debt outcomes”, she said, “the trap can then be a debt-for-equity swap and they have lost their sovereignty”. Australian aid programs in the Pacific have no such ulterior motive, Bishop claimed:
“We want to be the natural partner of choice. We recognise we’re not the only partner, but we would like the Pacific to see Australia as providing them with the kind of support that maintains their sovereignty, maintains their economic stability and doesn’t become an unsustainable debt burden.”
The idea that Australian policy aims to defend the sovereignty of island nations from rapacious foreigners brings to mind the infamous words of a United States military officer during the Vietnam War: “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it”.
Papua New Guinea was an Australian colony until 1975. Australia remains the dominant foreign economic player there, $18 billion of capital being invested in 2016, more than from any other country. Australian aid to PNG totalled $540 million in 2017-18 – more than two-thirds of PNG’s total foreign aid income, and 8 percent of the government’s budget.
Australia’s economic power buys plenty of influence. Since 2004, Australian officials have been embedded in key positions in PNG’s public service, police and military.
More than 40 percent of Australian aid goes to enforcing “good governance”, more than to health and education combined. Behind the facade of technocratic neutrality, “good governance” is diplomatic code for imposing Australia’s preferred neoliberal model of economic management and service delivery. Governance programs are delivered by private sector consultants selected and managed by Australia.
Similar examples could easily be listed. Last year, the Solomon Islands concluded a deal with Chinese company Huawei to build a new international undersea internet connection. To ward off this threat to the Solomon Islands’ sovereignty, Australia stepped in to fund most of the construction and keep Huawei out.
Like PNG, the Solomon Islands depend heavily on Australia for aid funding. In 2003, Australia dispatched hundreds of troops, police and civilian administrators to the island nation amid civil unrest, and assumed many core functions of government. This intervention formally ended in 2017, but the Australian aid program remains invested in policing and, of course, governance.
East Timor and the ‘rule of law’
Australian defence minister Marise Payne has also joined the diplomatic piety act, telling a multilateral forum held in Singapore in June:
“Nations must … have the right to be free from coercion or criticism when they lawfully and reasonably communicate concerns about the behaviour of others. This extends to the reasonable expectation that rules, not the exercise of power, govern our actions.”
Payne cited the conclusion of a border treaty with East Timor earlier this year as an example of Australia’s commitment to the international rule of law. The hypocrisy is staggering. Since sending troops into East Timor in 1999 to ensure its own interests were protected during the transition from Indonesian rule, Australia has treated the new nation with an equal mixture of contempt and greed. Coercion and criticism have flowed freely.
Australia refused for years to agree to a border in the Timor Sea based on the international standard of the median line between the two countries. This denied East Timor, one of the poorest nations in the world, billions of dollars in oil revenues, a conscious attempt to coerce the new nation’s leaders into signing an unfair agreement.
Australia’s then foreign minister Alexander Downer responded to East Timor’s demands for a fairer deal on oil revenue by saying, “We are very tough … Let me give you a tutorial in politics – not a chance”.
It is now known that Australia used the cover of an AusAid reconstruction project to bug the East Timorese cabinet room during the oil negotiations. Australia has, however, proved its commitment to the rule of law – by charging a former Australian spy and a lawyer representing East Timor, who exposed this scandal, for betraying national secrets.
In 2006, Australian troops were again deployed to East Timor when civil unrest threatened the elected government of Fretilin, led by Mari Alkatiri. Far from remaining neutral in the conflict, Australia threw its full support behind Alkatiri’s political rivals Xanana Gusmão and José Ramos-Horta. Alkatiri was viewed by Australian officials as being under the influence of China, whereas Gusmão and Ramos-Horta were thought to be friendlier to Western powers.
Australia’s regional military ties
Australia has military and economic interests in south-east Asia and the South Pacific. Rumours that China wanted to establish a military base in Vanuatu triggered panic among Australian policy makers earlier this year. Last month there was concern about the docking of a Chinese “spy boat” next to an Australian warship – while both were visiting Fiji! One country’s good will tour is another’s spy mission.
Australia’s military openly seeks strategic influence in neighbouring countries. The 2016 Defence White Paper stated, “Australia will continue to seek to be the principal security partner for Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste and Pacific Island Countries, by deepening our security partnerships, including through our Defence Cooperation Program”.
This program purchases more than $160 million worth of influence for Australia per year, in military training and hardware.
Further afield, Australia maintains a close military relationship with Malaysia, Australian troops and aircraft being on permanent rotation through the Butterworth air base on the strategically vital Malacca Strait.
Since 2017, Australian military and intelligence forces have also participated in a highly secretive operation against “Islamic terrorism” in the southern Philippines. And Singapore has a longstanding agreement to use Australia as a training base for its armed forces.
Imperialist manoeuvres and the return of great power rivalry
It is not “foreign influence” that Australia objects to in the Asia-Pacific. It is being outcompeted for influence by China.
Australian strategists have always valued maintaining stable and friendly regimes throughout south-east Asia and the South Pacific. This region acts as a buffer against any hostile power threatening the Australian mainland, and cuts across shipping lanes vital to international trade and communications with great power allies.
Since the end of World War Two, Australia and the United States have enjoyed a relatively untroubled dominance throughout the region. China’s rise and ambition to rival US power in the Asia-Pacific are upsetting this cosy status quo, opening a period of intensified imperialist competition.
One aspect of this competition is jockeying for influence within smaller nations, the governments of which seek “protection” from one of the great powers, or attempt to play one rival off against another to advance their own interests.
Diplomatic spats are therefore likely only to multiply over the coming years. But China has a lot of catching up to do if it wants to displace Australia as the biggest bully on the block.