Scott Morrison has quickly put flesh on his Pacific step-up strategy. With the US, Japan, New Zealand and now France supportive, the Prime Minister has assembled an impressive coalition of democracies that may soon include Britain. Morrison knows that effective co-operation between Australia and the other Pacific powers will make it more difficult for China to entrench itself in our backyard and exploit the economic vulnerabilities of small Pacific island states.
Geopolitical rivalry is sometimes likened to an endless chess game that ebbs and flows as competitors retreat and advance. Barely a year ago, Beijing was on the verge of a historic advance deep into the southwest Pacific. Leveraging off a series of prestige infrastructure projects, Chinese firms were well placed to build ports, military facilities and undersea communication systems for Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Vanuatu and Solomon Islands before being checked by Australian counter-offers.
A decisive checkmate is unlikely. China won’t give up on its regional ambitions, and East Timor has emerged as the next piece in play. Frustrated by the unwillingness of its joint venture partners to build a pipeline to East Timor for onshore processing of gas at Beaco from the rich Greater Sunrise project in the Timor Sea, Dili is contemplating funding from China Exim Bank by designating the Beaco project as a Belt and Road initiative.