27 November 2019
Australia’s spy agency, ASIO, does not usually provide a running commentary on its investigations. But on Sunday night the agency confirmed that it was aware of China’s reported attempt to install a candidate into federal parliament, and that it was “actively investigating” the allegation.
Presumably, ASIO made this rare statement to ensure that the public does not begin to question the loyalty of MPs, as well as to show that it is combating Chinese attempts to interfere in Australian affairs. But the more pressing risk for Australia may involve countries that have much less capacity to resist China’s reach, particularly those in the South Pacific. ASIO’s budget for this year is $573 million. This is more than the combined gross domestic product of Tuvalu, Nauru and Kiribati.
The extent to which Pacific states are struggling to deal with China’s growing clout was indicated by the recent treatment of Dan McGarry, a Vanuatu-based journalist whose work visa was rejected several weeks ago. McGarry, a Canadian who is widely followed for his regular scoops and his insights into Pacific affairs, had been living in Vanuatu for sixteen years and reported for the Vanuatu Daily Post for four years. He is currently stranded in Brisbane while his partner, a Vanuatu citizen, is still in Vanuatu. The decision to reject his work permit application appears to have been motivated by a story he broke in July about four Chinese nationals in Vanuatu who were stripped of their Vanuatuan citizenship and deported, along with two other Chinese citizens, apparently at the behest of China. According to McGarry, the story angered Vanuatu’s prime minister, Charlot Salwai, who summoned him and said: “If you don’t like it here, go home.”
McGarry told me that politicians in Vanuatu have long attacked the media – his predecessor at the newspaper, for instance, was beaten three times, jailed and subjected to an attempted deportation – but these cases tended to involve powerful figures personally responding to a story or scandal. He suspects that his case, on the other hand, was orchestrated by the government, and reflects the country’s vulnerability to growing Chinese influence. He said that although he has no evidence that China directly ordered his banishment, a Chinese diplomat may have simply “raised an eyebrow” to indicate displeasure with his reports. Or politicians in Vanuatu may have acted unprompted, to ensure that the flow of Chinese loans and investments continues. “I don’t think a request from China was necessary,” McGarry said. “[The visa rejection] could be seen as currying favour and solidifying the relationship.”
He also believes that Australia, the largest donor to Vanuatu, is contributing to the problem by “stepping away from defending democratic ideals and institutions in the Pacific”. “Australia is not promoting democracy, and China is on the ground and operating the same way that they do at home,” McGarry said. “[Vanuatu’s] politicians are not a special breed. You have people committed to doing the right thing, and pragmatists, and the outright sleazy and corrupt. The difference is that we don’t have the institutional structures and restraints that Scott Morrison does. The level of scrutiny in Vanuatu is me and about six other people [in the media].”
Canberra is currently obsessed with matching – or even trumping – Beijing’s displays of largesse in the Pacific. But this needs to be accompanied by support for governance and anti-corruption measures, even though they may not be as enticing to local politicians.
Australia is marshalling forces at home in the battle against foreign interference. Scrutiny is being applied by police, intelligence agencies, state anti-corruption agencies and – as long as they are spared federal police raids – the media. But this battle must extend to the Pacific, where these institutions are often weak, vulnerable or non-existent. As China’s interests and spending in the Pacific grow, “raising an eyebrow” there will have increasingly far-reaching consequences.