Professor Rory Medcalf, Head of the Australian National University’s National Security College, in this exclusive interview for Vila Times talks about the strategic competition between China and Australia in the Pacific, maritime system, “chinafication” of Vanuatu and labour mobility.
‘Australia should be open to a large amount of labour mobility in the South Pacific’
– The report about potential Chinese military base in Vanuatu. This was viewed as a threat to Australia, something that could “inhibit the freedom of movement.” While at the same time Australia has been inhibiting the freedom of movement in the region a lot with its overly complicated and quite discriminating visa policies. Would you agree there are obvious double standards here?
These are separate issues. Australia is concerned that a Chinese military base in the South Pacific could in future restrict the freedom of other countries to move their shipping, for example during a confrontation or conflict. Australia fully respects other nations maritime rights and supports full freedom of navigation, for instance in the South China Sea. On migration issues, my own view is that Australia should be open to a large amount of labour mobility in the South Pacific – but this is quite a separate issue to the way military forces may in future prevent freedom of shipping.
‘It makes more sense for Vanuatu to be like Singapore and allow free and open access for a range of countries when their navies visit the region’
– If we look at this whole issue solely from the Vanuatu perspective, not Australian perspective, what are the potential benefits and disadvantages of having Chinese military base for Vanuatu?
It is difficult to see the long-term benefits of Vanuatu becoming part of a strategic competition between China and others such as America, Japan, India, Australia, France and more. It makes more sense for Vanuatu to be like Singapore and allow free and open access for a range of countries when their navies visit the region, rather than something exclusively for one power.
‘Australian government wants to protect people from Chinese Communist Party’s influence and intimidation’
– The reaction of Australian officials to this news story. As we know, Australia itself has been a subject of increasing Chinese influence for a number of years, including investments in ports. Could we say this kind of emotional reaction from Australian officials is to a large extent a demagogy directed more towards the internal market (Australian people) than against China?
Australian officials are not reacting emotionally to these issues of Chinese power and influence. This is all about national interest, national sovereignty and national values. Australia is protecting its own interests against risks of foreign espionage and influence – whether from China or anyone else – and we want to encourage our neighbours to do the same, for their own good as well as ours. Australia is a proudly multicultural society, with a large community of Chinese origin, and we cherish and respect that community. But our government also wants to protect that community from foreign – that is, Chinese Communist Party – influence and intimidation.
‘We need a shared maritime system where no single country can be dominant’
– Can we say, in the context of this story, that “ruling the waves” (securing sea lanes and establishing maritime power) generally gets more important for the world’s big powers nowadays? And “ruling the waves” in the Pacific in particular.
The importance of sea power is just as great now as it was one hundred, two hundred, three hundred years ago. And China is recognizing that. But we need a shared maritime system where no single country can be dominant. We are seeing China grow its navy and extend its reach very quickly, like an accelerated version of an old-fashioned colonial power, so naturally other countries are trying to moderate and balance that behaviour. And a country like Australia will continue to maintain a serious navy and good partnerships to protect its interests.
‘Undersea cables are both a lifeline and a vulnerability for island nations’
– What about Australian (and the Pacific’s) cyber-security? Russian subs have recently been seen snooping around trans-ocean cables and Vanuatu is connected to the world with just one single fiber optic cable.
Undersea cables offer both a lifeline and a vulnerability for island nations large and small. That is another good reason either to have a reliable navy or a trusted neighbor who can assist against this type of risk.
‘China is seeking to use cyber technology for strategic influence and espionage’
– Also the block-chain technology is currently seeing massive investments in billions from a lot of well known sources. In general a military base for refueling warships is a small potato in comparison to the cyber possibilities.
It is widely reported that China is seeking to use cyber technology for strategic influence and espionage, so all countries should be watchful on this front. Traditional military capabilities still matter, but cyber can increase their effect.
– The real estate market in Vanuatu speaks a clear language. Western expatriates are selling more than buying property, while the Chinese are buying and investing on a great scale. Income tax will greatly accelerate this pattern. Even in the ability to give Foreign aid the Chinese economy is 10 times the size of that of Australia. How does Australia see this “chinafication” of Vanuatu and it’s foreign relations?
How Vanuatu manages foreign influence, including Chinese influence, is a matter for Vanuatu. But other countries like Australia can offer well-meaning advice based on what we have seen elsewhere. It will be important to avoid over-reliance on any one country, or to avoid debt traps and property price bubbles that could cause economic harm in time.
– There is a very real potential of wrecking of the Vanuatu economy by the pressure and coersion of the Austrailin ATO (for Vanuatu to introduce the income tax primarily). Would you agree these actions could easily open the doors to Vanuatu for China even more?
That is not an area where I have specialized knowledge, but I am confident that the Australian Government has no wish or intent to harm the Vanuatu economy – quite the opposite, Australia wants its regional neighbours to be economically sound and healthy.
– Australia has a few extreme right wing parties hoping for a Trump-style revolution in Australia at the next federal election. So far they have not gained any federal seat but what do you think will happen in the next 2019 election? Has the Trump phenomena acted as a vaccination against what many openly call fascism?
What we have seen in America and Europe in recent years – the rise of some pretty nasty nationalism populism and authoritarianism – is indeed a warning call. Thankfully, our system of compulsory voting is a safeguard against allowing extremists to gain power, as it means that moderate opinion is strongly reflected in voting outcomes.
– Early 2017 Mr Turnbull said he was not aware of a foreign country seeking to influence an election in Australia to the extent of Russia’s involvement in the US election. What is Australia doing to prevent malicious hacking during the next election?
The Australian Government has woken up to the risks of foreign interference in our political system, and is watching closely against efforts by the Chinese Communist Party to exert unacceptable influence in our domestic affairs. Fortunately, with a paper-based voting system, Australia has in-built resilience against cyber hacking of our elections. But we will need to be vigilant against online propaganda, of the kind that Russia has used in the US and Europe to try to sway public opinion.