THE DRAGON AND THE KANGAROO
WILL LESSONS EVER BE LEARNT?
Caption – Australia’s Bête Noire. Fishing in contested waters.
CURRENT AFFAIRS FLASH POINTS
The average Australian citizen might see a common denominator to the list below sooner than some decision makers in Canberra. The list unrolled is:
- The eruption of Mt Pinatubo, Philippines, in June 1991 leading to the departure of American forces from Subic Bay naval base and Clarke airforce base resulting in a military power vacuum.
- A few months later the Chinese Government reinvigorated the Nine Dash Line in the South China Sea thus increasing its influence over east Asian nations.
- Darwin port and the 99 year lease granted to the Chinese-controlled Landbridge Group for a paltry $650 million odd.
- Whispered plans for a Chinese military base on Vanuatu.
- Huawei Technologies Co Ltd and Australia’s politicians visits to China.
- The publication of Silent Invasion by Dr Clive Hamilton.
- Australia’s recent arm wrestle with Huawei to construct a $200 million undersea communication cable to Papua New Guinea.
- An announced Australian Government program to install undersea cables to the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu
- Foreign Interference legislation passed to protect National Security.
- Chinese acquired shortwave radio access to Pacific island nations because Australia terminated its well-established shortwave service for a paltry annual net saving of $2.8 million. China, naturally, filled this broadcast power vacuum. (ABC News, 22 June 2018)
Comment will be restricted to the termination of Australia’s shortwave radio services to Pacific island nations and the predictable rise of Chinese influence by snapping up Australian shortwave radio frequencies. Larger issues flow from this.
This decision will be shown to be a major diplomatic blunder by DFAT and the ABC. It reflects poorly on lessons to be learnt from history on the nature of ‘vacuums’ in geopolitics.
EXIT THE KANGAROO
In January 2017, the ABC formalised a decision to terminate shortwave radio services to the Northern Territory and Pacific nations to save an annual current cost of some $1.9 million. (aph.gov.au, Restoring Short Wave Radio) This decision was made before updated FM services were in place. The reason being the technology was old (but very effective) and would be updated by FM and digital at a future date. So, immediately, Papua New Guinea’s population of eight million (less 10% with internet access) and several million in other Pacific nations, were in radio silence – not a good way to win friends and influence people.
In June 2017 after the termination, DFAT indicated Pacific nations clearly required this vital service, but the cost would (only) double to $4 million a year. However, net increase would only be $2.8 million a year. (The Strategist, 19 June 2018)
In a thinly-veiled attack, the Lowy Institute’s Melanesian Program Advisor indicated that $2.8 million was no more than a rounding error within the DFAT budget of $1.1 billion in 2016-17 for the Pacific nations. (SBS News, 22 December,2016)
In Pacific nations away from principal population centres, Australia’s shortwave radio service was the only contact with island capitals and the outside world. This service was essential in times of disaster, political instability and security. For eighty years, since the 1930s, Australia has been providing this service to millions of people. The service has won friends, stabilised hearts and minds, promoted trade and national interest. Now we pack up our swags, leave a radio black hole behind us and provide the perfect environment where Chinese influence can flourish.
At a Senate Estimate Hearing in March 2017, the ABC CEO intoned ” I am confident we have met our Charter obligations across all services we needed to provide”. This mean-spirited myopic comment beggars belief. There is a lack of understanding of Australia’s role in the Pacific region involving international relations, security and national interest. The fact that the CEO, Ms Michelle Guthrie, has no experience in journalism or public broadcasting could explain the lack of vision and foresight for the ABC in the Pacific. (theaustralian.com/abc/guthrie)
DFAT appears to have been barely involved and was apparently unconcerned over security, geopolitical issues or trade. In an interview with the Foreign Minister, the Vanuatu Trade Commissioner said it would be a disaster if the shortwave radio service was terminated. Ms Julie Bishop agreed to pass on this concern to the ABC – a totally inept response. History does not record any result. (SBS, 31 January 2017)
While tedious, it is instructive to appreciate the extent of this radio black-out by Australia. Nations affected are Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, Nauru, Kiribati, Micronesia, Polynesia, Marshall Islands and Cook Islands.
Under questioning, the ABC stated “while there are no firm figures on audience numbers in those regions they are understood to be low”. In fact, the number exceeds ten million. The view of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute is “this is a dumb decision and another bout of OZ amnesia. (SBS, 22 December, 2016)
Concluding this section, both ABC and DFAT have terminated a vital shortwave radio service apparently oblivious to social, trade and national security implications for a net annual saving of $2.8 million dollars. A vacuum has been created – drum roll for the Dragon.
ENTER THE DRAGON
With Australia’s unwise relinquishment of shortwave radio, frequencies for the Pacific region Radio China International acquired these assets and is now broadcasting to Pacific nations on Australia’s maritime ‘turf’. This was to be expected as illustrated by the Mt Pinatubo eruption and the fallout from the military vacuum.
The irony is that China has acquired valuable radio frequencies for minimal cost, complete with a tied established audience with radios already tuned to Australia’s discarded frequencies. The Voice of Radio China is now heard without adjusting the settings. It is not too late for Australia to re-enter this arena but it will be with a diminished voice. Meanwhile, New Zealand maintains its short wave influence in the region. (RNZ, 22 & 25 June 2018)
The implication of this Australian faux pas is serious and must be considered in parallel with other tensions across Australia’s Pacific ‘turf’. These are:
- China is seeking to become the the controlling power in Australasia; it has large resources at its disposal.
- Canberra is seeking to negotiate a security treaty with Vanuatu to address economic aid, maritime surveillance and defence cooperation. It is not impossible to consider Vanuatu could be used by a hostile power to threaten Australia.
- It has been reported by Australian military sources that China and Vanuatu are discussing a military base on this island nation – so far denied.
- Unrelated to the above! – China has financed a new cargo wharf on Esprito Santo and completed an upgrade to the international airport. China now owns more than half of Vanuatu’s $440 million foreign debt while, since 2007, trade between the two countries have increased six fold.
- China is in talks with the Solomon Islands Government to construct an airport and aircraft maintenance facilities on Guadalcanal. (The Times, 1 May 2018)
- To forestall Chinese intentions, Australia has committed to construct a 4,000 km submarine internet cable from the Solomon Islands to Australia.
- The Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea has just completed a visit to China where he has committed the country to the One Belt One Road policy. This is significant as it now places this Chinese trading structure within a canoe ride of the Chinese controlled port of Darwin. (Geopolitical Futures, 25 June 2018)
- An extraordinary ‘big picture’ is emerging of Chinese influence, military aspirations and trading links involving Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. These island chains control the north-eastern maritime approaches to Australia.
The concept of land or sea barriers between warring states is older than the Roman Empire but still relevant today. Russia’s influence over the Intermaruim plus Ukraine has been a central tenet of Russia as a buffer against Europe. China has sought some security behind its Nine Dash Line. Australia had its opportunity to develop a buffer along the island chains of the Western Pacific but China appears to now be turning this situation on its head to become a security issue for Australia. There is now a discernible trend in Chinese policy – if it is not halted it will continue.
Caption. Fair Go! Not another problem!
Fishing in contested waters.
History is important – two comments:
- The Nine Dash Line was reinvigorated into the vacuum created by America. The termination of ABC shortwave radio into the Western Pacific, created a vacuum now filled by Radio China International.
- The port of Darwin was acquired by a Chinese company without visionary regard to long term trade, security and geopolitical implications by the Australian Government. This unwise arrangement resulted in a mystified phone call —- Obama to Turnbull “What the devil is going on down there?” China now controls many of Australia’s former shortwave radio frequencies. The same question from America is again warranted.
Finally, the burning question is “Just how much America thinks China’s expansion into the South China Sea matters to its interests and how far America is willing to go to protect those interests”. (Geopolitical Futures, 28 June 2018)
The corollary that follows is: how far will America go to protect Australia’s interests in the Western Pacific?
POSTSCRIPT Since June the Australian Government has reawakened to its obligations in the South-West Pacific by:
- spearheading a security network to bolster the Pacific Island Forum.
- providing 21 Guardian class vessels to twelve Pacific nations including East Timor.
- the recognition of Malaysia, Indonesia and Philippines as buffer states to the Dragon.
- upgrading the Lombrun Naval Base, Manus Island, PNG.
- by blocking (postponing) the construction of a Chinese military base on Fiji.
- by sighing a bilateral security treaty with Vanuatu. (GPF, Oct. ’18)
JOHN HUGH HILL– email@example.com
Current Affairs Flash Points – towardsthefinalhour.com