Opinion: Has Penny Wong given Australia a fighting chance of slowing China’s expansion in the Pacific?


Australia’s new government has made it clear that its approach to its relationship with the Pacific will have a new type of engagement. Will it give it a chance to fight the influence of China in the region? Political consultant Jeffrey Wall explores.

China donated funds and medical materials to aid PNG’s COVID response. Credit: LOOP

I have felt significant pessimism at Australia’s capacity to slow, let alone stop, China’s expansion in the Pacific, and particularly the South Pacific.

It is early in the life of the new Australian Government, but I have moved from pessimism to optimism. Its new Foreign Minister, Senator Penny Wong, deserves much of the credit for that.

The contrast between the approach to the region, and China’s influence, by the former Foreign Minister and her Labor successor could hardly be greater.

In four weeks, Senator Wong has visited four South Pacific nations (Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and the Solomon Islands). In the last three years, Senator Marise Payne visited just three Pacific nations.

Payne left engagement with the region to a junior minister, something which was a constant source of irritation, especially in Papua New Guinea and Fiji.

I agree with them. It is not insignificant that the lion’s share of China’s engagement with the region is undertaken by their Minister for Foreign Affairs.

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‘Sport has the potential to greatly enhance Australia’s engagement in a way that China cannot hope to.’

In recent years, China has elevated the Pacific, and especially the South Pacific, to a high status in its foreign policy agenda. Until quite recently, Australia simply had not done the same – a serious error.

It is inevitable that Senator Wong will allocate some of the responsibility for regional engagement to the Minister for the Pacific and International Development to one of her junior ministers, Pat Conroy MP.

It is to be hoped she will maintain an activist hands-on approach to engagement with the region. It will not have escaped her notice or that of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese that she has been extremely well received by regional leaders.

She has shown them a level of respect that was just not in evidence in recent years.

Sport connection

PNG’s under-20 women’s soccer team and sports minister Justin Tkatchenko in Mount Hagen. Credit: Facebook/Justin Tkatchenko

The Australian Government is clearly developing a series of policies that will appeal to the Pacific. Hopefully, the policies will focus more on greater people engagement and less on cash aid.

As I have written, sport has the potential to greatly enhance Australia’s engagement in a way that China cannot hope to.

Nothing better illustrates this ‘potential’ than the test matches between PNG, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa played in Australia recently. The tests are receiving both free-to-air and pay television coverage in Australia and across the South Pacific.

A moderate Australian Government support package including funding to encourage junior and women’s sport as well as international competition will have a massive impact.

Half the registered NRL players were born in or have direct family connections with Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, New Zealand Maori or are indigenous Australians. That is fertile people-to-people ground, to say the least.

New types of engagement

I have written about several other policy priorities centred around enhanced people-to-people engagement with the region.

While Senator Wong is taking a very activist approach to the region, there are two other areas that ought to be considered. Both were largely neglected by Australia’s former government.

The first is engaging with the Christian churches to strengthen people-to-people links.

A greater role for church-based NGOs also needs to be supported and funded, including the Townsville-based YWAM (Youth With A Mission), which is already doing outstanding work in PNG and is doing so with significant local support and engagement.

The third area that should be a priority is engagement with Australian business through industry and professional groups.

China has capitalised very effectively on the decline in Australian business activity in PNG in some key sectors. With Australian banks withdrawing or downsizing, Chinese banks and financial institutions are doing the very opposite, including significant loan support for the PNG small business sector.

PNG is going to be a successful and growing participant in small business in both urban and rural communities, but it is going to need greater access to finance, and training. Australia should be better placed than China to provide both.

Jeffrey Wall has had a 43-year association with Papua New Guinea, including as an adviser to prime ministers and senior ministers and as a consultant to the World Bank. This article is an edited version of the opinion piece first published in The National Forum.


  1. Yol Bona says

    The Australia Government needs to wake up to its anti PNG policies of the pre colonial and post colonial era periods.
    In world war two, PNG became a sacrificial lamb for Australia. Australia used PNG to fight off the Japanese with a strong local PNG soldier’s support including the local population. Not to mention the trillions of dollars worth of gold it stole from PNG, Wau airport was the busiest airport even surpassing the LA airport in the US. Australia has used PNG gold to build its cities of Sydney, Brisbane,Cairn and the like..
    AUSTRALIA must never forget that PNG is strategically located to attack or defend Australia.
    You look at all the Pacific Islanders living in Australia, not to mention New Zealand, New Zealand is a complete success story of its own. Congratulations to New Zealand, it is truly Pacifica in every sense of the word.
    The Samoans, Fijians, Tongans, Niueans, and other little islands of the Pacific islanders living in Australia. They are way higher in terms of numbers than the PNG people living in Australia, its only a drop in the ocean.
    Australians have had a very bad and poisonous policy toward allowing PNGeans to migrate to Australia over many many years. Australia does not want to see its closest neighbor prosper and beat Australia, and Australia is doing all things within its power to ensure that PNG remained a poor country despite being its closest northern neighbor. Maybe we will really develop when we partner with China & Russian and kick Australia out of PNG for good.
    People to People contacts has been good, but it is the Government policy that heavily discriminate PNGeans against other nationalities. Until and unless that fundamental curse is removed, Australia must not be safe place no more for the discriminatory Australians Government against the China.
    I suggest that Australian Government considers with seriousness the following thoughts if it wants to contain PNG in its sphere of influence, and more so the security of Australia’s future.

    1. allow PNG to have a team in the NRL
    2. allow PNGeans easy access to Australia for employment, education, people to people visit,
    PNG businesses to set up and operate, medical reasons.
    3. More Australian businesses to set up operations in PNG.
    4. Allow many more Australians to work and live in PNG
    5. Think creatively and add on to this list to make Australia/PNG bond become absolutely unbreakable.

  2. Vincent Tara says

    Since we are closer to Australia can we have a easy excess to Australia for job, or study? Getting a visa or passport to Australia is really difficult. I believe thus can change the way png people think. Right now Australia don’t have control over this because Chinese are commiing with money.

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