Sun, Mar 10, 2019 - Page 1 News List

Australia admits failings in Pacific as China looms


Then-Australian assistant minister for agriculture and water resources Anne Ruston is sworn in during a ceremony in Canberra on Sept. 21, 2015.

Photo: AFP

Australia on Friday admitted it had not focused enough attention on its Pacific backyard, but vowed to make “long overdue” amends amid growing Chinese influence in the region.

“I think we would have to accept some criticism,” Australian Assistant Minister for International Development and the Pacific Anne Ruston said. “We have perhaps not put as much attention and effort into our own region as we should of.”

Ruston has been at the sharp end of trying to fix that, jetting between Australia and far-flung Pacific islands as part of Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s “step-up” in the region.

The policy includes more aid, security assistance, diplomats working in the region and face-to-face contacts.

It is, in large part, a response to Beijing’s growing economic, political and military activity in the region.

“I think we’ve had our focus gazed much further afield for a very long time,” Ruston said. “It has certainly, more recently, been forced to be refocused back onto our own region.”

While Australia was more focused on Fallujah than Fiji, China has been doling out loans and investment in the region and scooping up natural resources and telecom contracts.

Still, Ruston rejected suggestions that Australia, by moving to develop security facilities in Papua New Guinea and Fiji, is causing the type of militarization many complain China is embarking on.

“This is our region, this is our area, this is where we live,” she said.

Australian re-engagement has been hampered by deep disagreements with Pacific nations over Canberra’s skeptical stance on climate change — an existential threat to many island nations.

Fijian Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama has been among those accusing Australia of putting its coal industry “above the welfare of Pacific peoples.”

In places like Kiribati, it is “singularly the biggest issue that they have at the moment,” Ruston said.

To square the circle, Canberra diplomats have tried to separate climate policy writ-large from day-to-day work to temper its impact.

“We’re talking tens of billions of dollars to be able to get the Pacific up to the kind of development standard that I think the Pacific aspires to have for itself,” the minister said.

Australia has committed to some ambitious projects, such as helping Papua New Guinea bring electricity to 70 percent of the population by 2030.

However, even that is another issue that has been complicated by Australian domestic politics, which sees Papua New Guinea almost exclusively as the location of an offshore detention facility.

“I think it is the challenge of the job,” Ruston said of balancing domestic and international issues, adding that Australians have not been totally won over by the idea of long-term development assistance.

“I think one of the things that we’ve probably failed to do is to sell the message to the Australian public about why it is so important for Australia to assist, particularly our close neighbors in the Pacific,” she said.

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