Like every ascendent economic, political and strategic power, China has used its period of rapid industrialisation and economic expansion to begin establishing its position within the broader global context.
Fuelled by a long memory of a "century of humiliation" at the hands of Western imperialism, finally ending with the successful Communist Revolution in 1949, China and its political leaders have dedicated the nation to establishing a new era of Chinese global primacy.
As China's position within the global order has evolved and its ambitions towards the Indo-Pacific in particular have become increasingly apparent, the Chinese government, driven by an extremely ambitious leader, President Xi Jinping, has identified a number of factors of both 'internal' and 'external' concern for the rising superpower's status.
These 'concerns' extend to traditional areas of Chinese focus, namely central Asia, Tibet and the Taiwan situation, and more concerning for nations like Australia, the south Pacific and south-east Asia – further compounding these issues is America's resurgence, characterised by what China describes as "intensified competition among major countries, significantly increased its defence expenditure, pushed for additional capacity in nuclear, outer space, cyber and missile defence, and undermined global strategic stability".
In response, the Australian government and Prime Minister Scott Morrison have kicked off the renewed 'Pacific Step-up' program to counter the growing economic, political and diplomatic influence of China as a result of the growing expansion of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – the Lowy Institute has previously identified the growing power and influence China's BRI program has in supporting the Pacific.
"Infrastructure remains a crucial requirement for ensuring resilience in the Pacific. Considering the opportunities for collective engagement with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) merit careful analysis and discussion, particularly given that nine forum member countries have already signed bilateral memoranda of understanding to co-operate with China on the BRI," it said.
However, China's BRI is not without its challenges. The US, Japan and now Australia have officially launched the Blue Dot Network, led by the US Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), the Japan Bank for International Cooperation and the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAT) at the 35th ASEAN summit hosted in Thailand earlier this month.
US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross officially launched the latest US counter-punch against China's long maligned influence peddling and 'debt diplomacy' efforts throughout south-east Asia, the south Pacific and parts of western Asia as the rising superpower seeks to secure its critical supply lines for raw resources and return lines for manufactured goods.
A statement of the OPIC website explains that the Blue Dot Network aimed to: "Blue Dot Network will evaluate and certify nominated infrastructure projects based upon adherence to commonly accepted principles and standards to promote market-driven, transparent and financially sustainable infrastructure development in the Indo-Pacific region and around the world."
Enhancing Australia's 'Pacific Step-up'
Australia's participation in the Blue Dot Network aims to build on the nation's ramping up 'Pacific Step-up' program, which is a pet project of Prime Minister Scott Morrison and is a very traditional approach to enhancing Australia's position in both the global and regional order.
Pacific Step-up combines elements of both hard and soft power – with the Australian government focusing on supporting the economic, political and cultural development of Australia’s Pacific island family.
Despite Australia's efforts in the form of the Pacific Step-up program, China has sought to expand its influence and presence in the Pacific, through a number of Chinese-owned, state-backed companies jockeying for lucrative deals to support the rising superpower’s ambitions in the region.
China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation, a large investor in neighbouring Vanuatu, and China Railway International have used promises of US$500,000 in loans and grants, and plans to lend US$825 million to revive a defunct gold mine to sway the Pacific island nations.
In response, Australia's commitment to the Blue Dot Network provides a powerful, joint effort to counter the long lead China has in terms of influence peddling and relationship building in the region, particularly as examples like Sri Lanka's Hambantota port 'acquisition' by China to write off approximately US$1 billion worth of debt continue to fall on deaf ears in the Indo-Pacific.
Currently the US has committed US$17 billion to directly support projects as part of the Blue Dot Network, with about US$7 billion allocated to supporting future energy projects in the region – the Blue Dot Network and America's existing commitments are also seen as a tactical and strategic win for Australia by many leading experts.
This is articulated by US-China relations expert Bates Gill, who, in speaking to the ABC, stated: "Australia wins because this is a small but important example of keeping America in and diversifying partnerships with important players in the region like Japan."
Questions for Australia
Despite Australia’s enduring commitment to the Australia-US alliance, serious questions remain for Australia in the new world order of President Donald Trump’s America, as a number of allies have been targeted by the maverick President for relying on the US for their security against larger state-based actors, which has seen the President actively pressuring key allies, particularly NATO allies, to renegotiate the deals.
Enhancing Australia’s capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability serves as a powerful symbol of Australia’s sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia.
Shifting the public discussion away from the default Australian position of “it is all a little too difficult, so let’s not bother” will provide unprecedented economic, diplomatic, political and strategic opportunities for the nation.
However, as events continue to unfold throughout the region and China continues to throw its economic, political and strategic weight around, can Australia afford to remain a secondary power or does it need to embrace a larger, more independent role in an era of increasing great power competition? Further to this, without adding a degree of cynicism to the debate, what is China's end goal for this focus on Australia's backyard?