By Jorge Medina
Since the Covid-19 pandemic has taken a stranglehold on the world, many Western powers are eager to blame China for the global downturn, Australia, however, has been exceptionally outspoken in its recent statements about China’s actions regarding the pandemic. As the Covid-19 continues to surge, Australia uses this reason to make their voice louder about their concerns regarding China’s behaviour in the region. Australia has started behaving in a defensive way that has caused it to call-out the threats they have received from Chinese expansionism in the South Pacific. With this article, I would like to detail what are the Chinese threats that threaten Australian hegemony in the South Pacific and the significant change it is having in the region.
In the past few decades, a substantial number of Chinese students have flocked to Australian universities for education. This has brought a significant amount of cash flow and funding into the higher education sector, university funding dependent on the enrolment of these students. But this money does not come without strings. The Chinese government has set up many methods of surveillance on university campuses across Australia. It has led to self and forced censorship by academics who conduct research that involves anything to do with China. Students are not allowed to express themselves freely without the fear of facing retribution. When the Hong Kong protests erupted in 2019, Hong Kong students across Australia protested against the actions of the Chinese Communist Party back in Hong Kong, and Chinese diplomatic missions organized counter protests where Hong Kong and local students faced physical and vicious online retaliation.
Another way in which China threatens Australia’s regional power status is its increasing its investments into countries such as Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands. China has reached out to these small island nations, and has not only offered to help fund investment projects, but has also promised to aid the economies of these isolated nations. As these nations have traditionally relied on Australia for investment and protection, China’s increased influence, threatens Australia’s legitimacy in the South Pacific. In contrast to Australian aid and investment which is highly conditional on improving human rights and have significant corruption-fighting mechanism in place, China’s funding has no such preconditions. Accordingly, island nations have been accepting Chinese loans and funding to build grand infrastructural projects. These projects not only have limited benefits towards the growth of local economies and can be seen as ‘roads leading to no-where and can be seen as useless vanity projects used to perpetuate China’s debt-trap diplomacy initiatives. With a considerable amount of money floating into these nations, China is subverting Australia’s presence in the region and is shifting the patronage role. These physical projects are creating a significant amount of influence, even if they are roads that lead to nowhere. It is building roads figuratively connecting these nations with China and blocking Australia’s influence and subverting Australia’s power status in the region.
During the spring of 2020, in the first wave of the pandemic, many Australian leaders called for an inquiry into China’s role in the way that the pandemic has spread. Since then… (contemporaneous examples please). Australia sees China’s actions on Covid-19 as dangerous to the stability of the world, and counts China as the responsible actor at fault for its initial handling of the pandemic. China has seen this as an attack to their nation and started pulling Australian products across the country. Many Chinese citizens also started to advocate for a boycott against Australian products. China refuses to allow Australia to declare whatever it wishes on the world stage. It is making sure that Australia’s securitization of the pandemic occurs significant economic costs in order to deter other states from criticising its handling of the pandemic, and broader activities in its sphere of influence.
All of these actions threaten Australia’s role in their own region. China continues to influence in the local higher educational and political sphere. China has been investing with Australia’s traditional allies in the South Pacific. China seems to be changing the way that Australia functions as an actor in its own region and is significantly changing the security landscape of world politics. And as China continues to rise, it will continue changing the rules to the existing international world order.
Jorge is a MA student in the Conflict Resolution in Divided Societies program at King’s College London. Jorge is originally from the US and did his undergrad at UC Irvine and spent time at Yonsei University in South Korea. Jorge has previously spent time studying conflict in the Middle East through the Olive Tree Initiative and working for the Mexican Embassy in the US for the Office of Border Affairs. You can follow him on Twitter @medina_jorgeUK