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Has Penny Wong given us a fighting chance of significantly slowing China’s expansion in the Pacific?

By Jeffrey Wall - posted Friday, 24 June 2022

Readers will be aware of my significant pessimism at our capacity to slow, let alone stop, China' s expansion in the Pacific, and particularly the South Pacific.

It is early in the life of the new Australian Government, but I have moved from pessimism to optimism and the new Foreign Minister, Senator Penny Wong, deserves much of the credit for that.

The contrast between the approach to the region - and China's influence - by the former Foreign Minister and her Labor successor could hardly be greater.


In four weeks Senator Wong has visited four South Pacific nations - Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and the Solomon Islands. In the last three years Senator Marise Payne visited just three of our neighbours!

She left engagement with the region to a junior minister - something which was a constant source of irritation in our region, especially in Papua New Guinea and Fiji.

I agree with them. It is not insignificant that the lion's share of China's engagement with the region is undertaken by the Minister for Foreign Affairs.

In recent years China has elevated the Pacific, and especially the South Pacific, to a high status in its foreign policy agenda. Until quite recently we simply had not done the same. That was a serious error on our part.

It is inevitable that Senator Wong will allocate some of the responsibility for regional engagement to the Minister for the Pacific and International Development to one of her junior ministers, Pat Conroy MP.

It is to be hoped she will maintain an activist hands-on approach to engagement with our region. It will not have escaped her notice or that of the Prime Minister that she has been extremely well received by regional leaders.


She has shown them a level of respect that was just not in evidence in recent years.

The government is clearly developing a series of policies that will appeal to our neighbours. Hopefully it will focus more on greater people engagement and less on cash aid.

As I have written sport has the potential to greatly enhance our engagement in a way that China cannot hope to.

Nothing better illustrates this "potential" than does the test matches between PNG, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa being played in Australia this weekend. The tests are receiving both free to air and pay television coverage in Australia and across the South Pacific.

A moderate Australian Government support package including funding to encourage junior and women's sport as well as international competition will have a massive impact. And a wholly positive one.

Half the registered NRL players were born in or have direct family connections with Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, NZ Maori or are indigenous Australians. That is fertile people-to-people ground to say the least.

I have written about a number of other policy priorities centred around enhanced people-to-people engagement with the region.

While Senator Wong is taking a very activist approach to the region there are two other areas that ought to be considered. Both were largely neglected by the former government.

The first is engaging with the Christian churches to strengthen people-to-people links.

While Christian church membership in Australia is in serious decline, the very opposite is the case in our region. Christianity is flourishing in most countries. Perhaps less so the traditional churches, but the growth in Pentecostal churches is more than making up for that.

Most of our regional neighbours lack serious capacity in health care, school education and vocational training. A number of Australian churches already have a strong presence in the region but with government support they could do much more!

A greater role for church-based NGOs also needs to be supported and funded more.

Including the Townsville based YWAM which is already doing outstanding work in Papua New Guinea, and is doing so with significant local support and engagement.

The third area that should be a priority is engagement with Australian business through industry and professional groups such as the Australia-Papua New Guinea Business Councils. The Councils are broadly representative of Australian businesses active in Papua New Guinea and have the capacity to grow business links in a productive way.

China has capitalised very effectively on the decline in Australian business activity in PNG in some key sectors. With our banks withdrawing or downsizing China banks and financial institutions are doing the very opposite including significant loan support for the PNG small business sector.

PNG is going to be a successful and growing participant in small business in both urban and rural communities but it is going to need greater access to finance, and training and we should be better placed than China to provide both.

Sadly one of the great Australian contributors to the private sector in PNG passed away this week.

Sir Peter Barter was a leader in the private sector for forty or fifty years. He focussed on hospitality and tourism including operating passenger ships and the Madang resort.

He also served in the national parliament and was a very effective health minister.

He was respected across Papua New Guinea, he held robust views and was rarely backward at expressing them. Sir Peter was one of our best "exports" to Papua New Guinea.

May he rest in peace.


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About the Author

Jeffrey Wall CSM CBE is a Brisbane Political Consultant and has served as Advisor to the PNG Foreign Minister, Sir Rabbie Namaliu – Prime Minister 1988-1992 and Speaker 1994-1997.

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