Thursday, 15 November, 2018

To counter China, Australia plans US$1.5 billion Pacific infrastructure fund

Navy personnel on parade during a commissioning ceremony for HMAS Brisbane in Sydney last month Navy personnel on parade during a commissioning ceremony for HMAS Brisbane in Sydney last
Steven Clarke | 11 November, 2018, 03:34

The timing of Morrison's announcement is potentially awkward for Foreign Minister Marise Payne, who held talks yesterday with counterpart Wang Yi. This is our part of the world. Extra diplomatic missions would be opened in French Polynesia, the Marshall Islands, Palau, Niue and the Cook Islands.

The Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility would issue grants and long-term loans for "high priority" projects including telecommunications, energy, transport and water.

Australia will also establish a Defence Force mobile training team for deployment to the Pacific to upskill local forces.

"It is imperative for the two sides to re-establish political mutual trust, so as to consolidate the basis for bilateral relations", Wang said, voicing the hope that Australia correctly understands and treats China's development path and its strategic intentions, working to wipe out "mutual trust deficit".

"We did exchange views on that matter", Payne said at a press conference alongside Wang, but she did not elaborate on what she had told him behind closed doors.

The move comes as Australia and China vie for influence in the Pacific. He said in a Nov 1 speech at an Asia Society event hosted by Bloomberg in Sydney that "China is the country that is most changing the balance of power" and "exercising unprecedented influence in the Indo-Pacific".

Prime Minister Scott Morrison is set to announce his pivot to the Pacific as he prepares to meet regional leaders at the APEC forum in Papua New Guinea.

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Payne said the government judged that the acquisition would have resulted in "an undue concentration of foreign ownership by a single company group in what is our most significant gas transmission business".

In a speech last week, Opposition leader Bill Shorten promised to put Pacific "front and centre" in Australia's foreign policy if elected, and ensure that those islands looking for partners to help them build infrastructure "look to Australia first".

China has spent $1.3 billion on concessional loans and gifts since 2011 to become the Pacific's second-largest donor after Australia, stoking concern in the West that several tiny nations could end up overburdened and in debt to Beijing.

On Wednesday, Australia said it intends to block a Chinese and Hong Kong consortium's 13 billion Australian dollar ($9 billion) bid to take over the APA group.

Last week, Australia said it and Papua New Guinea (PNG) would jointly redevelop a naval base on PNG's Manus Island, eclipsing China as a possible port development partner.

"We remain absolutely committed as a government to welcoming foreign investment into Australia".

Mr Wang signalled that Beijing was committed to continuing the recent thaw in relations.

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