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The Belt and Road Initiative and the Geopolitics of the South Pacific

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David Morris

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The Belt and Road Initiative and the Geopolitics of the South Pacific

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The Belt and Road Initiative and the Geopolitics of the South Pacific

China's new program for inter-regional economic connectivity,the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI),will develop new trade routes and production chains linking developing world economies with the giant Chinese market.In recent years,“China threat” discourse is becoming dominant in the English-speaking narratives about the BRI and that has been particularly prevalent in the South Pacific.At the same time,most Pacific island countries have signed up to participate in the BRI.The rise of China will certainly be disruptive to existing power relativities,strengthening China's geopolitical position as the hub for diversified land and maritime trade routes including the South Pacific.The question explored in this paper is whether China and Australia,the dominant regional players,are driven by geopolitical imperatives to compete for power in a high-risk game,or they do their geopolitical constraints which means they can find a formula for cooperation that is mutually beneficial and can manage risks in the region.

The BRI promises to develop a wider range of trade connections across land and sea,further internationalizing the Chinese currency and Chinese corporations,as well as further globalizing the Chinese economy.Through investing in local infrastructure and connectivity along the new trade corridors,the BRI offers to integrate developing economies further into global supply chains.As Chinese industry upgrades to higher value production,it can be expected that many developing world countries on the Belt and Road will take their place as suppliers of lower value products.The initiative may reduce China's dependence on traditional trading partners and therefore over time signal a shift in Chinese outward investment away from traditional destinations such as the United States (U.S.) and Australia towards developing BRI partners,which are enjoying the fastest growth in Chinese investment.If successful,the BRI may therefore reshape global trade.

Depending on ideological predisposition,the audacity of this initiative from a rising power represents on the one hand a huge contribution to the public good that could be contrasted with the colonialism and plunder of former rising powers or,on the other hand,a geopolitical play to trap the developing world into debt relationships and domination by Chinese state and business interests.As China's relative power grows and given the nature of the Chinese Party State,inevitably those nations whose relative power is declining will perceive the disruption as a geopolitical threat.

The primacy of geopolitics was evident at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders meeting in Port Moresby in November 2018.U.S. Vice President Pence confronted China with rejection of a so-called “constraining belt” and “one-way road”,claiming the terms of Chinese assistance were “opaque”,“unsustainable and poor quality”,“threatening the sovereignty of small nations”.At the same time,Pence announced the U.S. would partner with Australia in upgrading a military base on the Papua New Guinea island of Manus,at Lombrum,a port that China had reportedly offered to help upgrade.Australia also announced that it would establish a U.S.$1.5 billion infrastructure financing facility for the Pacific Islands,including Papua New Guinea,in cooperation with Japan and other countries,as a clear counter-balance to Chinese infrastructure finance.The stage was set for Great Power competition in the South Pacific.Must it be so?

After decades of constructive engagement with China,the mood in the West has soured.Following the shock of deep economic recession and its lasting impacts since 2008,with the subsequent rise of populist leadership,the U.S. has flipped to strategic competition with China.That was first manifested in the 2017and 2018.Its second manifestation was in the Trump Administration's “trade war” tariffs which observers believe is part of a U.S. strategy to de-link its economy from dependence on China and to prevent Chinese dominance of new communications and artificial intelligence technology,which are likely to be the critical platforms for the “fourth industrial revolution”.This shift to strategic competition is unlikely to be a temporary phenomenon,as U.S. relative power diminishes over time from the unique unipolar after the end of the Cold War,and as China's relative power increases.

The changed geopolitical climate has had an impact in the leading power of the South Pacific region,Australia.Despite being one of the most economically integrated advanced economies with China,Australian discourse changed in recent years under a minority conservative government to a “China panic” over foreign political donations (allowed under Australian law) and supposed “foreign influence” operations.Australia began to push back against Chinese finance and investment in its region.A far right member of the government lashed out at Chinese “roads going nowhere”in an attempt to paint Chinese aid as overbearing and misallocated in order to gain political influence.The move backfired on the Australian Government,as it was followed by a series of blunders in which Australian ministers appeared condescending or dismissive of the Pacific,with the comments widely interpreted as attacking the decision makers of the Pacific who had solicited Chinese support for key infrastructure.Nevertheless,the BRI has been increasingly discussed in negative terms in the region,consistent with global English language discourse.

The geopolitical narrative that has developed in the West in recent years describes the BRI as a grand strategy for maritime and land route domination by China,using subsidized finance and disproportionate scale to develop infrastructure and relationships across vast swathes of the world to impose its will,including for future potential projection of military power.The narrative goes that China is trapping developing nations in debt that will be impossible to repay,laying the groundwork for Chinese economic and political domination and potential seizure of strategic assets.This narrative has developed at the same time as China has been militarizing islands in the South China Sea,tightening its grip on internal security and sharpening its rhetoric on unification with Taiwan.It is therefore understandable that geopolitical analysts may conflate a range of Chinese behaviours,combined with the Chinese Party State,with the BRI to construct a “China threat” to the global order.But before drawing any conclusions about the Chinese Government's long term aims,it is important to investigate both the geopolitical imperatives as well as the limits on China's current and potential “hard power” reach.

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