It became evident from the huge media buzz coming out of the Pacific Islands Forum, which brought together 18 states in Tuvalu from August 13-16, that two models of development - the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and the Australia's "step-up" strategy - were being looked at very seriously.
China's BRI has had success in Pacific countries like Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu in providing sustainable economic development and helping to reduce poverty. Its success has been due to policy reforms to improve debt sustainability and mitigating social and environmental risks. China has also effectively integrated the BRI with tackling global warming issues. A World Bank analysis has even found that the BRI can increase global trade by as much as 6.2 percent, and a higher 9.7 percent for participating economies. For low-income corridor economies, foreign direct investment can go up by as much as 7.6 percent.
Despite the BRI's sustainability, there has been a perception in some Western developed countries that the BRI was just a fancy gift-horse that would die a natural death. The fact that the BRI has grown in strength and is at the forefront of promoting Pacific and global sustainability has inspired Australia to come up with its "step-up" strategy to rebut the BRI with support from its Western allies. Australia's "Pacific step-up" is driven by concerns about the rising influence of China.
In late 2018, Australia promised Pacific Islands up to 3 billion Australian dollar ($2.03 billion) in cheap loans and grants. However, none of this money is new money - it's being redirected from the aid budget. And it does not answer the call of Pacific leaders for Australia to do better when it comes to cutting emissions.
Pacific Island leaders had already criticized Australia for counting emission reductions achieved prior to its 2016 pledge to reduce emissions by between 26 percent to 28 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. There had also been shock when Australia gave permission in June for the gigantic Adani coal mine to operate in Queensland.
Tuvalu Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga commented that "No matter how much money you put on the table, it doesn't give you the excuse not to do the right thing, [which is] cutting down your emissions." Indeed, Tuvalu is refusing to accept aid from Australia.
Pacific Island leaders have asked Australia to take action to strengthen emissions targets. Nine of the 18 smallest Pacific states even issued a communiqué calling for divestment from fossil fuels, an end to coal, and for the biggest polluters to pay for the islands' adaptation. Despite this plea, Australia's Minister for the Pacific Alex Hawke said that Australia would not withdraw its support for coal, or its stance on climate change issues. As a result, Australia's relationship with Pacific nations has been tense.
One issue that has impressed about the BRI in the Pacific is that China has gone out of its way to maintain the delicate balance of relationships that exists between Pacific states and the larger metropolitan neighbors like Australia and New Zealand. There has undoubtedly been a major shift in the sense that Pacific nations have developed stronger links with China. Yet China has maintained its harmonious geopolitical relationships. In this regard, it has become a major pillar of stability in the Pacific. Through the BRI, leaders of Pacific nations irrespective of their size, wealth and strength are treated as equal partners with China. The BRI is molding a new generation of leaders who are visionary in their thinking and who work not only for national goals but for greater global peace, environmental sustainability and prosperity.
Pacific policy expert Tess Newton Cain was quoted by The Guardian as saying that China's growing presence in the Pacific may mean that Australia has far less leverage than it previously did. Fiji's Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama said, "We cannot go on talking about partnerships regardless of whether it is [the Australian government's Pacific] step-up or [New Zealand's Pacific Reset], while you keep pouring your coal emissions into the atmosphere, which is killing my people."
The BRI provides a new model for Pacific island countries to get along with their neighbors and a new way of thinking for island countries' diplomacy. The BRI coincides with the Pacific philosophy that island countries believe in. At their core is sharing and tolerance, which is wiser in contemporary diplomatic activities.
(Dr. Joseph Veramu is a policy consultant to the Fijian Government and dean of the Fiji-based think tank South Pacific Island Countries Institute of Asian Studies (SPICIAS). Michael H. Yang is CEO of Chinese Media (Fiji) Ltd and permanent secretary of SPICIAS. )