Is Australia warning the Chinese to back away from tiny Tuvalu?
Diplomatic move on tiny island state comes amid concerns over interest in the Pacific, writes Jonathan Pearlman
The tiny Pacific nation of Tuvalu - a series of coral atolls lined with palm tree beaches and lagoons - has one airport, one hospital and one bank. It covers 10 square miles, making it one of the smallest countries in the world.
But this remote place, accessible by an unreliable thrice-weekly air service from Fiji, is about to receive a new set of international residents. In a surprising announcement, Australia revealed this week it is planning to dispatch diplomats to establish a high commission in the capital of Funafuti, joining the island's only other embassy, Taiwan.
Explaining the decision, Julie Bishop, Australia's foreign minister, said Tuvalu was "an important partner in the Pacific". But most observers believe the move is motivated by anxiety about China's growing role in the waters of the South Pacific.
Graeme Smith, of the Australian National University, said his response to the news was: "Tuvalu - really?"
He added: "It's as close as you can get to a Pacific paradise - large green cliffs and a pristine place - but you have to wonder what the diplomats will do."
A Commonwealth nation which only gained independence from Britain in 1978, Tuvalu has a population of 11,000 across its nine atolls. The main island, Funafuti, is just 60ft wide in parts.
But the remote country has become enmeshed in concerns about China's ambitions in the region.
China and Taiwan have been locked for decades in a war of chequebook diplomacy to win the support of small Pacific nations. The island states have scant resources or revenue but are adept at trading off tensions between China and Taiwan and, more recently, Russia and Georgia.
At times the results have been farcical. In 2004, the nation of Vanuatu announced it was switching its diplomatic recognition from China to Taiwan after a promise of aid. It changed back to China eight days later. Recently, China has increased efforts to win support from the remaining backers of Taiwan, now numbering fewer than 20 worldwide. The latest was the Dominican Republic, which switched allegiance from Taiwan two weeks ago after Beijing offered it a suite of investments and loans reportedly worth €2bn.
Australia has become increasingly concerned that China's interests in the South Pacific could extend beyond this and pose a security threat. Recently, it was reported that China had approached Vanuatu about establishing a military presence, something it denies.
Malcolm Turnbull, Australia's prime minister, said: "We would view with great concern the establishment of any foreign military bases in those Pacific island countries and neighbours."
Britain appears to share the concerns, announcing in April that it will open high commissions in Vanuatu, Samoa and Tonga.
"An increased global footprint will ensure Britain and its allies can counter the malign influence of countries who seek to undermine the UK," the UK Foreign Office stated.
China's investment in the Pacific states has prompted concerns that a failure to repay debts could allow it to claim significant assets - a scenario that occurred, most notably, in Sri Lanka and left Chinese-owned companies in control of a strategic port. According to the Lowy Institute in Sydney, China provided €1bn in aid and loans between 2006 and 2016.
In an apparent response, Australia and New Zealand announced this week large increases in aid across the Pacific.
Foreign minister Ms Bishop played down suggestions the Pacific island largesse was motivated by fears of China's growing influence.
But Winston Peters, deputy prime minister of New Zealand and Ms Bishop's foreign ministry counterpart, not renowned for diplomatic niceties, was blunt.
"Put simply, if we're not there, some other influence will be," he said.