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  • Omar Khan

Sun, Sea and; Spies: the Sino-Australian Pacific rivalry

Calling this year’s Pacific Islands Forum tense would be a huge understatement. The summit in Suva was a chance for Australia and New Zealand to reunite with their “Pacific family”, consisting of over a dozen island nations spread across the Earth’s vastest ocean. But as with any family reunion, there was going to be drama.

Kiribati announcing the day before that it wouldn’t attend meant no-one could ignore the elephant (or rather, giant panda) in the room. In 2019, President Taneti Maamau broke off relations with Taiwan in favour of China whose menacing eagerness to invest in the Pacific has set off alarm bells in Canberra.

The last decade has seen two major changes in the region, both irreversible: one, climate change, the “single greatest threat” to existence according to Fiji’s defence minister, which has drowned the shores with rapidly rising sea levels and choked economies struggling with the pandemic fallout; and two, China became one of the biggest trading partners for all Pacific nations.

At the exact same time that newly-elected Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and his New Zealand counterpart Jacinda Ardern were trying to win back the trust of Pacific politicians (wary of the condescending Australian leaders of the past) at the Forum, Beijing held its own separate summit. Officials from several territories, including Vanuatu and Tonga, attended China’s Political Leadership Dialogue in-person – even a Fijian minister joined online despite the so-very ironic fact that the Pacific Islands Forum was taking place simultaneously in Fiji.

In the summer, Australian foreign minister Penny Wong visited Papua New Guinea and reminded Pacific leaders that aid from her government would come with “no strings attached”, an unsubtle response to China’s proposal in June for a comprehensive trade and security deal with ten countries in the region.

Interestingly, Pacific governments caught in the Beijing-Canberra tug-of-war have been using the situation to their advantage. By playing what one professor calls “the China card” (i.e. threatening to work closer with Beijing), Pacific leaders are forcing Australia to deliver on and expand its promises of aid and cooperation. So what have the latest developments meant for the region? Whose interests are at play? And what does this escalating cold war mean for the future of the Pacific nations?


On 3 December 2013, Australian federal police raided the home and legal practice of Bernard Collaery. The public was outraged. Collaery represented Witness K, an anonymous former Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) officer who blew the whistle on an illegal operation in which Canberra allegedly bugged the offices of the Timorese government during negotiations in 2004 over oil and gas rights in the Timor Sea. Naturally, when this came to light, Australia’s call for a global “rules-based order” was undermined and building trust with East Timor became an immense challenge.

“Please don’t lecture me,” Timorese President José Ramos-Horta said in response to a journalist in September 2022. They had asked him how Dili could justify its plans to build a pipeline to the Greater Sunrise gas fields in light of the climate consequences. Ramos-Horta, a leader of the 24-year struggle for independence from Indonesian occupation, explained that the US, Europe, and Australia “were the ones who polluted the whole world” and if they compensated the $100 billion the project is estimated to bring to East Timor, then his government would stop the development. Looking back at the last fifty years, though, that doesn’t seem likely.

In 1974, executives at Woodside, Australia’s largest natural gas producer, must have been very giddy. They had just discovered Greater Sunrise in the Timor Sea where Canberra had granted them full range for years. Two years prior to the discovery, Australia secured its access to the hydrocarbon-rich area by refusing to talk to Portuguese Timor and instead negotiating with Indonesia. In 1975, Indonesia, with covert Australian support, invaded Portuguese Timor and in 1979, Canberra signed a treaty granting them access to areas far north of the legally-favoured median line, becoming one of the only Western nations to recognise Jakarta’s occupation which would go on to see 200,000 people killed. After East Timor became independent in 2002, Prime Minister Michael Howard and his foreign minister Alexander Downer allegedly diverted resources from the war on terror to spy on President Xanana Gusmão’s new Timorese government while negotiating a new treaty, which would also greatly benefit Canberra.

When Gusmão learned of the bugging, by 2012, he went to The Hague and in 2013, Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s government made the allegations public. Gusmão and Ramos-Horta were infuriated when the homes of their lead witness and his lawyer were raided under the orders of David Irvine, head of ASIO which accompanied federal police – Irvine was ASIS director-general in 2004. Although international shame forced Australia to renegotiate a fairer treaty (signed by Prime Ministers Scott Morrison and Taur Matan Ruak in 2018), the Coalition government’s relentless pursuit of Collaery and Witness K (costing $6 million) had stalled trust-building.

Earlier this year, Albanese’s new Labor administration dropped the case, winning praise from Ramos-Horta (re-elected as president in May). But what about the China card? Although Timor GAP (national oil company) owns 56.56% of Greater Sunrise (compared to Woodside’s 33.44%), the current question is where to build the gas pipeline. Woodside and Canberra prefer it directed to Darwin, but Dili wants it connected to them across the Timor Trench. Ramos-Horta warned he “would favourably consider partnership with Chinese investors if other development partners refuse to invest in bringing gas via pipeline” to East Timor, explaining that his country “would be in a financial cliff if Greater Sunrise is not operating within the next ten years.” Despite the new defence agreement signed in September and talk of greater cooperation, like in much of the world, the oil and gas are going to cause problems. As Canberra tries to rebuild its relationship with Dili it must contend with its past mistakes. It is hard for a country that throws its geopolitical weight around and spies on its neighbours to take the moral high ground with China; Beijing may indeed pursue foreign alliances for self-gain, but it never pretended not to.


On 26 November 2021, Australian security forces deployed to Honiara on the island of Guadalcanal. The city was on fire. Protests by Solomon Islanders from Malaita (the country’s most populous island) against the government of Prime Minister Mannasseh Sogavare had escalated, bringing rioting, arson, and the storming of parliament. Under a defence pact, Canberra was obliged to send in troops, accompanied by Papuan, Fijian and New Zealander personnel. During the violence, many businesses in Honiara’s Chinatown were targeted, a detail that will prove very significant.

In April this year, the Solomon Islands signed a security pact with China stoking fears in Washington and Canberra that Beijing could build a naval base there. Morrison, then-prime minister, warned this would be a “red line” for Australia, and in May, Sogavare lashed out, criticising the response to the invasion of Ukraine, praising China’s treatment of Christians, and vilifying critics of the pact.

Then Albanese was elected, and relations changed gear. They hugged at the Pacific Islands Forum in July and Sogavare assured his new counterpart there would be no Chinese base and Australia would remain the Solomons’ “security partner of choice.” But things have not smoothed over. Disputes over American and British ships being turned away from the country, as well as Sogavare, in September, angrily refusing Canberra’s offer of assistance in funding next year’s election (which he controversially wants to delay until after the Solomons hosts the Pacific Games) have both stalled cooperation. Then there’s China’s agenda.

Since independence from Britain in 1978, the Solomon Islands has been plagued by instability. In the late 1990s, tensions between local Guales and “settlers” from Malaita exploded into civil conflict seeing armed militias, a kidnapped prime minister, hundreds dead, and thousands displaced. The 2000 Townsville peace treaty demanded the central government address the deep-rooted social inequalities behind the violence – this didn’t happen and by 2003, the Solomon Islands was considered a failed state, leading to the creation of the Regional Assistance Mission (RAMSI) that stayed for 14 years. Ethnic Chinese people were attacked during anti-government riots in 2006 amid misguided talk of “foreigners” monopolising businesses. Fast-forward to September 2019, five months after his election to a fourth term, Sogavare (who last served from 2014-17) ended Honiara’s 36-year relationship with Taiwan. Daniel Suidani, the Malaitan premier, reacted furiously – his island had had particularly close ties with Taipei and for many Malaitans, this was a provocative act of further marginalisation by the central government. Allegations of corruption, such as Solomon politicians taking Chinese bribes and the island of Tulagi being leased to Beijing without landholder knowledge, in addition to disgruntlement over the infrastructure promises not being kept, led to criticism nationwide. In 2020, the US donated $25 million to Malaita (which had tried to hold an independence referendum that year). Suidani, hostile to Chinese businesses and desperate to re-establish relations with Taiwan, faced an attempt by Beijing-backed politicians to remove him from power in October 2021. The following month, violence reminiscent of the conflict twenty years ago broke out with three bodies found in Chinatown.

Beijing, at the time, declared it would take “all necessary measures” to protect its citizens in the Solomon Islands. With the security pact in April, the 2023 elections likely to be delayed by Sogavare (who survived a no-confidence vote last December), and the opposition led by Matthew Wale calling for Australian support, Canberra will no doubt be keeping a close eye on Honiara to ensure they won’t have to learn what these “necessary measures” truly are.


“We all know the pressure on Pacific island countries from China,” explained Tuvaluan foreign minister Simon Kofe in late 2019. After Honiara and South Tarawa switched positions earlier that year, only Tuvalu, Palau, Nauru, and the Marshall Islands still recognise Taiwan. Kofe went on to warn his neighbours about Beijing’s notorious debt-trap diplomacy. From 2017, however, many south Pacific nations welcomed Chinese loans for infrastructure projects and agreed to join the infamous Belt and Road Initiative. More recently, though, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Taiwan (along with Australia and New Zealand) increased aid to the region and fewer countries have been willing to take on Chinese debt. An undersea Internet cable funded by Washington, Canberra and Tokyo aims to cut off Beijing from regional telecommunications infrastructure. The Pacific is often identified as a diplomatic battleground for China and Taiwan, and with 46% of Australians supporting a military intervention on behalf of Taipei (more than in Japan or the US), it’s clear Canberra is right in the middle of it. President David Panuelo of Micronesia (which does not recognise Taiwan) last year said he told Washington and Beijing “they can compete on a healthy basis in the region,” while warning that his government has had to carefully balance relations to avoid being “sandwiched” in superpower rivalry.


For COP26 in Glasgow last year, Kofe recorded himself stood knee-deep in seawater to remind the conference of the existential threat climate change poses to Tuvalu and its neighbours. The Pacific Islands Forum this year declared a climate emergency for the first time. Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, along with the Forum chair, pointed to Australia in particular and urged Albanese to commit to the 1.5C global warming limit. Rising sea levels, extreme weather and ocean pollution are all major concerns. According to the Fijian economy minister, a “cyclone in 2016 wiped out one third of the value of [their] GDP in 36 hours.” A diplomacy lecturer in Suva suggested Pacific nations should use the attention of global powers on their security as “leverage for more climate action.” The countries caught in the crossfire of this cold war between China and Australia are facing their greatest challenges and for any progress towards peaceful cooperation and development to be made, it must address the people’s needs. Regarding pollution, coral bleaching, and coastal erosion threatening the homes of those in the Cook Islands, one young Rarotonga resident said she’d “like to see a change in the attitude that people have...because once we all begin to respect the ocean and realise how beautiful it is, then we will be able to help it stay healthy for as long as it needs to. Which is hopefully forever.”


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