Island Leaders applied concise and concerted use of linkages
Big hearted Australia in the end got the slap in the face reserved for all generous donors when a more powerful and deeper-pocketed benefactor materialises.
After its immense contributions to Oceania topped up by a half billion dollar bonus, Australia’s premier Scott Morrison was bluntly told by Pacific leaders to shut down its coal mines, the source of its open-handedness, writes our Australian correspondent
Australia’s premier Scott Morrison maintained his stony fixed smile as he and his country were publicly put in their place and compelled to coldly digest the resentment that beneficiaries feel for their benefactors when they have reasons to believe that they are no longer dependent on them.
Nothing fades more quickly than gratitude but the awkward events in Tuvalu unrolled against a background of several shocks hardly yet understood in Australia, and even less understood outside it.
Shock Number One. The discovery that Australia’s back-door the port of Darwin had been leased to the Chinese for 99 years.
Shock Number two. The revelation that China was standing by to securitise and otherwise assume the debt of Papua New Guinea.
Shock Number three. The loss at the general election of Bill Shorten’s Labour Party which was considered by the political class unbeatable due to its climate change at-any-cost policies.
The lease of Darwin’s port and its delayed discovery is explicable only in the context of Australia being the world’s most over-governed country. It has in fact 14 houses of parliament. So the much-quoted belief that the nation at large discovered the lease deal only when a quiz question on national security was broadcast carries a degree of truth.
The assumption by China of Papua New Guinea’s governmental debt similarly burst unexpectedly on the political consciousness.
The utter conviction in political class circles in Australia and New Zealand that Labour’s Bill Shorten would win the general election under the climatic banner was behind much of the trilling from New Zealand premier Jacinda Ardern to the effect that Australia had to “explain” itself to Oceania and in addition “take responsibility” for its coal mines.
What actually just happened in this story book Oceania setting was the presence of two elephants on those coral strands.
The Pacific Island yearly forums suddenly became a proving ground for great-power politics.
On the one side there was China yearning for the Oceania atolls and their gigantic economic zones.
On the other side the United States and its proxy Australia.
Napoleon said “Let China sleep; when she wakes she will shake the world.”
What nobody on the Australasian side had anticipated was that China would island hop quite so quickly all the way to the South Pacific and its atolls with their hitherto undervalued vast maritime jurisdictions.
No wonder the chieftains of this far-flung pattern of islands simultaneously discovered and flexed their new found muscle and did so under the code word of coal.
Their concision, precision, and unanimity in levering the advantage presented by China, coupled with their swift grasp of the encoded significance of the word coal was a lesson to diplomatic-governmental practitioners everywhere.
Compare the clarity of action of the Pacific leaders with for example the display of bumbling and fumbling, leaking, and general dissonance displayed by their counterparts in their efforts to extricate Britain from the EU.
Information is power, said Sir Francis Bacon. Once again it is here that the Pacific leaders had the edge, unlike, say, the Australians who collectively only in the last week woke up to the fact that they no longer owned their key northern China-facing defence port.
The Pacific leaders knew they were being handed a bargaining ace and more importantly still, they knew when and how to play it.
Their firm diplomatic professionalism was a lesson to the unready Australians with their touching belief in enduring gratitude, and also to New Zealand equipped with its anticipated statements to the effect that it was on the side of the angels.
Still unacknowledged by either of the somewhat disarrayed Australasian participants in the landmark forum remains the way in which the Pacific leaders understood and applied the techniques of divide and rule.