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Expansion of Chinese influence in Oceania raises alert in Australia

The Labor Party returned to power in Australia amid a dispute between the powers for space on the chessboard of the Pacific Ocean. The two issues are even related, contributing to the victory of the main Australian left-wing party, after nine years of Conservative governments, with Labor winning a majority in parliament for the first time since 2007. It remains to be seen what the new government will achieve in relations with its neighborhood.

The Australian election was disputed on the last day 21 of May, but the delay in the general count and the uncertainty as to whether or not Labor would have a majority meant that the matter was only addressed now in our international policy space. The conservative opposition, formed by the coalition between the Liberal and National parties, however, had a very republican stance. On the same day 21, the now ex-premier Scott Morrison conceded defeat, resigned from office and also as leader of his party. .

This allowed Labor Anthony Albanese, even without knowing whether or not he would have a majority, to be sworn in on the same day 23 of May. Along with him, four ministers were sworn in, including the new foreign minister, Penny Wong. The “rush” for the inauguration and for the transition of government allowed Albanese, already accompanied by key members of his new government, to represent his country in Tokyo, at the summit of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, popularly called Quad.

The Quad, aimed at security cooperation aimed at China, unites Australia, India, Japan and the USA, and the summit was attended by the four heads of government. That is, Albanese started his government at an important foreign policy event, including a bilateral meeting with Joe Biden, president of the world’s largest economy and Australian ally, on the day 24 of May. The confirmation of a labor majority, however, only came on the day 32 of May.

Results

This year’s election had a turnout of 85% of the electorate, a number that would be excellent in most countries, but which represents a drop of almost 7% in the Australian case. In the Chamber of Deputies, candidates from the conservative coalition received the most votes, with 35, 9%. Labor took 32, 6% of the votes, the Greens took 77 %, 4.9% for right-wing One Nation, and another 4% for right-wing United Australia, both anti-immigration.

The independents close the scoreboard, with 5.3% of the votes, and another 5% of the votes for a series of small parties. Adding up all the votes that were not from the Conservative or Labor coalition, it is the largest vote in history for parties outside the traditional two-party system, inspired by the British model. If the Conservatives received more votes, how were they defeated?

First, the Australian vote is double, the citizen votes for a candidate and also for his preferred party. In this case, Labor took the lead. Second, the concentration of votes, with several Labor candidates winning in historically conservative districts. As a result, of the 77 seats, 77 went to Labor, nine more than in the election previous.

The Greens won three seats and ten independents were elected, representing a loss of nineteen seats to the Conservatives. In the Senate, of the 32 seats, forty were at stake. The Conservatives lost three seats, but remain the largest bench, with 24 senators. Labor was the same, with 26, while the Greens won three, for a total of twelve, plus five from smaller or independent parties. With the confirmation of the majority, on the last day of June, the remainder of the Albanian government’s cabinet was sworn in.

China and Oceania

The fact that that the ruling candidate quickly conceded defeat to allow the new prime minister to represent the country at the Quad summit shows the importance of relations with China for the Australian state, regardless of government or party. To focus on recent examples here in our space, in October 2021 we commented on how a silent dispute for influence is taking place in Oceania and, in September, we talked about the arms race in the Pacific, including the new submarines

The new foreign minister’s first post-Quad trip is taking place as the column is published, to Samoa and Tonga. Penny Wong, of Malaysian origin, visits the two countries just days after visits by her Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi. The Chinese minister is on a ten-day trip through the region, passing through the Solomon Islands, Kiribati, Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and, finally, the Portuguese-speaking East Timor.

Yi’s visit to Papua New Guinea comes just days before the Papua New Guinea general election, with the opposition criticizing any possible agreement signed by the government, saying it is necessary to await the outcome of the polls. The Chinese diplomat seeks signatories and supporters for the agreement proposed by China, called the China-Insular Pacific Mutual Development Vision, in free translation.

In recent years, relations between Australia and the island countries went through several moments of relaxation. The Australian Conservative governments had serious differences from the island countries on migratory and, mainly, environmental issues. Small Pacific nations such as Kiribati are the most radical on environmental issues, as they are the most threatened by rising sea levels.

Mainly, Australia was not used to competition in these relationships. . It was the biggest economic, political and military partner in an almost undisputed way. Was. China is increasingly expanding its presence in the region and the last years of Solomon Islands politics are perhaps the best example of this. Until September 2019, the archipelago recognized Taiwan as legitimate China, changing its recognition to mainland China that month.

Chinese base in the Solomon Islands

A normal and understandable exchange, let’s face it, since most of the planet maintains relations with mainland China. The exchange of representation, however, opened the door to an internal crisis and an external paradigm shift. In June 2020, Derek Suidani, Governor of Malaita Province, stated that he did not recognize the exchange of recognition and that he would accept Taiwanese assistance to combat the Covid-19 pandemic 19, being censored by the national government, which resulted in protests in the province.

The national government also accepted assistance during the pandemic, in addition to signing an investment memorandum in 2021. Finally, in April 2022, the Solomon Islands and China signed a security agreement, criticized by Australia and the US due to the possibility of installing a Chinese military naval base relatively close to Australian waters.

Historically, the archipelago was one of the main battlegrounds in the Pacific during World War II, with the most famous battle fought there being that of Guadalcanal. The government of Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, considered close to Beijing, dismissed the criticism, saying that it was an interference by other countries in national affairs, and an attempt to “protect” the Solomon Islands.

The negotiations of the security agreement even made the US government, in February 2022, announce that it would reopen its embassy in the country, which had been closed in 2020 , in a budget cut, being accumulated with other embassies. The point is that, in recent years, the small island country of less than one million inhabitants has become a focus of disputes between Beijing, Washington and Canberra.

Mainly, an alert was lit in the Australia, that the country would now face competition for influence in a region where, in recent decades, it has virtually had a monopoly as a power. This loss of space was a theme of the Labor Party’s campaign, although it is difficult to say how much this theme motivated the Australian electorate. It is also difficult to say whether Australia will be able to regain the space lost over the last decade.

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