18 April 2011
Bishop was quoted as saying:
“We’re not going to be able to crowd them out with aid, but what we could do is join with them and be part… of their push into places like PNG.”
The argument goes something like this:
China delivers aid in the region in an apparently haphazard way that undermines internationally coordinated responses to issues such as countering corruption, efforts to strengthen governance and develop local ‘capacity’.
In fact, China ignores internationally normative ‘governance’ questions such as corruption and human rights, delivering aid and malleable ‘soft loans’ in an effort to advance narrowly defined national interests.
The suggestion that Australia, as the most significant aid provider in the region, should engage the Chinese in established international norms of coordinated aid delivery is consistent with ideals about Australia being a good international and regional citizen.
But the proposal flies in the face of established conventions and practices of Australian foreign policy.
The Australian’s guardian of this ‘realist’ foreign policy mainstream, Greg Sheridan, for example, is appalled by Bishop’s statement. He has tarred Bishop’s ideas as a ‘nonsensical thought-bubble’ and laid responsibility for the ideas with the Lowy Institute which, in his view, has no place in the cut and thrust of international politics.
For Sheridan, Australia’s only role as a middle-power in the Pacific is to remain firmly and loyally wedded to the American imperium.
While I doubt we’ll hear Bishop repeat the Lowy Institute proposal, her contribution should be welcomed for opening a broader discussion about Australia’s role in the rapidly-changing region.
Bishop is right to suggest that Australian foreign policy should engage much more actively with the region and avoid the tragic distraction of US wars far away. Where Bishop, the Lowy Institute and the realist mainstream might be wrong, is in understanding what is already going on in PNG.
In particular, it neglects the deep unrest at the ‘grasruts’.
One source of grassroots unrest is the $US16.5 billion Exxon-Mobil led consortium bringing gas from the Southern Highlands to a processing plant in Port Moresby and on to energy-hungry markets in Asia. This is the big development story in PNG today.
The 30-year project is expected to generate $US5.6 billion in royalties, taxes and dividends lifting PNG from its lowly ranking at 148 (out of 182) nations in the UN Human Development Index. The hope is that it will bring quality schools, healthcare and infrastructure to people across the country.
The first indications are not good. Landowner groups are demanding transparency from the agency which distributes their royalties apparently at whim, and provides no accounts or explanations of hefty ‘management fees’.
At the local level, royalty disputes have already led to acrimonious community divisions with at least 15 reported shooting deaths at either end of the pipeline, and construction sabotage and stoppages at the well.
The consortium appears to have washed its hands of the royalty distribution issue, preferring instead to talk up its distribution of 14,000 anti-malarial mosquito nets to pipeline communities in glossy ‘social and environmental impact statements’.
Meanwhile, the Chinese-run Ramu Nickel mine has led to even deeper resentments. There is deep community unrest over the damage being done to the Ramu river catchment and the authoritarian and contemptuous response at the mine to local concerns. The regional capital Madang has seen big anti-Chinese riots, as have parts of the highlands where a new wave of small-scale Chinese entrepreneurs are bitterly resented.
As the US-China dynamic becomes more complicated and control of regional resources more crucial, ‘middle power’ Australia needs to make some principled, long-term choices. One of those would be recognising that Australia’s long-term national interest lies with supporting local communities and emergent civil society organisations which have the resilience to weather the approaching storms and perhaps call their governments to account.
This will mean stepping out of the shadow of whichever great power we habitually attach ourselves to, and having a truly independent foreign policy. I don’t think that’s a ‘thought-bubble’ Bishop, Sheridan or the Foreign Minister Rudd can even begin to imagine.