Richard Butler | | July 14th 2018

This year has seen intense scrutiny of Chinese aid to Pacific island countries by the Australian media. The focus of coverage has been on a range of perceived “threats” emanating from China. These include the leverage associated with Pacific Island debt to China, and security and military implications of Chinese-funded infrastructure such as wharf facilities.

For a region accustomed to being ignored by the Australian press, it is a big change to the status quo. Unfortunately, the development is not necessarily positive: much of the reporting by the Australian media has bordered on the hysterical, and risks itself damaging Australia’s standing in the region.

Coverage of the construction of the China-funded Luganville wharf in Vanuatu has been especially egregious. Claims that the Vanuatu government was in preliminary discussions with China about “a military build-up” – claims that were unsubstantiated, and swiftly denied by the Vanuatu government – have been accompanied by a series of articles that expressed alarm about Chinese aid to Vanuatu. A key focus has been the construction of the Luganville wharf. Having been built to dock cruise ships that frequent Vanuatu’s waters, the wharf can also dock naval vessels (as recently occurred when the Australian navy offloaded aid supplies in response to a volcanic eruption in Ambae, Vanuatu).

Alarmist reporting about the wharf has continued, notwithstanding rebukes by the Vanuatu government, which has stated clearly that the wharf has no military purpose and that Vanuatu intends to continue its long history of non-alignment. The Vanuatu government even publicly released the contract for the wharf in order to show there is no debt equity swap clause that could force it to give up the wharf in the event of a default on the loan (this is important, given the Australian media’s comparisons with Sri Lanka’s debt-equity deal which saw it lease Hambantota wharf for 99 years). Australian media coverage of the non-story has nonetheless continued unabated.

Take for instance, a recent report by “60 Minutes” – one of Australia’s most popular current affairs television programs – headlined: “The sneaky tactics behind the rising global power’s latest master plan.” In a mediocre report, based on selective discussions with Australian analysts with little to no knowledge of Vanuatu, “60 Minutes” again made the claim that Vanuatu could be required to cede control of the wharf should it default on its debt — claim already discredited by evidence shared by the Vanuatu government, and premised on the idea that Vanuatu faces a debt crisis, which the International Monetary Fund has said it does not.

For every story in which the Australia press has chosen to focus on non-issues, there has been a failure to report on subjects that actually matter and affect its relationships with Pacific Island states. The Australian government’s tepid response to climate change is a case in point. For years, Pacific Island governments have advocated for a more ambitious climate change strategy from Canberra. Not only have their requests largely been ignored, but Australian leaders have been caught laughing about the impact of a changing climate on their Pacific neighbors. Peter Dutton, now one of the Australian government’s most powerful members of parliament, was recorded (unawares) in 2015 joking with Australia’s then-prime minister that “time doesn’t mean anything when you’re about to have water lapping at your door.”

Recent media coverage of Chinese activities in the Pacific has further damaged Australia’s standing in the region. Pacific Island leaders and citizens have always been sensitive to condescending remarks from what is the regional giant (Australia’s population is 23 million, while that of every single Pacific Island country, with the exception of Papua New Guinea, is less than 1 million). Australia’s relationships with the Pacific has therefore suffered every time Pacific Island states are talked about as if they were unable to manage their own affairs. Australian references to “our patch,” the focus on Australia’s security to the exclusion of all else, the condescending coverage of Pacific Island governments and leaders — all of these confirm the worst of how Australia and Australians are viewed by the Pacific. All serve to undermine its relationships with the region.

What could Australia do differently? More informed and less alarmist reporting would be a good start, and would be helped by a greater media presence in the region. The decline of an Australian media presence in the Pacific is well-documented. Australian reporting on the Luganville wharf has either been done remotely or has relied on fly-in fly-out visits to Vanuatu. The quality of reporting has no doubt suffered as a result.

An improved understanding of the region among Australians would also help. Papua New Guinea (PNG) is Australia’s closest neighbor, sitting just 5 kilometers from Boigu Island in Australia’s Torres Strait. Yet the average Australian knows next to nothing about their northern neighbor. Education systems in Australia are partly to blame. With the exception a World War II campaign involving Australians in PNG, Australians are far more likely to be taught in school about European history than about that of their immediate neighbors. At the tertiary level, units of study focused on the Pacific are few and far between, a point of contrast with the situation in New Zealand, which has long considered itself part of the Pacific Islands.

Inevitably, and as noted by the Australian Foreign Policy White Paper, stronger relationships with the region must be built on people-to-people links. This is where migration policy is important. Australia’s emphasis on skilled migration, coupled with stringent visa requirements for Pacific Islanders, has historically kept Pacific Islanders, and Melanesians in particular, out of Australia. In the 2016 Census, just 23,000 residents claimed Melanesian ancestry – a remarkably small number for a migrant nation, given the fact that PNG, with a Melanesian population of about 8 million, is a former Australian colony and on its doorstep. Contrast this situation with New Zealand, which has a large Pacific Island population, owing at least in part to special migration pathways that are available to Pacific Islanders, such as the Samoa Quota and the Pacific Access Category.

If Australia is serious about its engagement in the region, it needs to consider what more can be done to build people-to-people links and increase Australian’s understanding of the Pacific Islands. That means educating students about the Pacific Islands, dedicating resources to reporting on the region, and importantly, discussing migration policy as it relates to the Pacific. One thing is for certain: jumping up and down whenever Pacific Island governments turn to China for a piece of infrastructure is not a strategy that will win Australia friends or influence in the region.

Dr. Matthew Dornan is Deputy Director of the Development Policy Centre at The Australian National University.