Another diplomatic row has broken out between Australia and China, with Beijing lodging a formal protest over a Federal Government frontbencher’s attack on its Pacific aid programs.
Yesterday International Development Minister Concetta Fierravanti-Wells heaped scorn on Beijing’s burgeoning aid expenditure in the Pacific, accusing it of funding “roads to nowhere” and “useless buildings”.
Australian officials have been watching China’s moves in the region warily, and say it has been using concessional loans and aid payments to bolster its influence.
But China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang called the Minister’s comments “nothing but irresponsible” and said they showed “scant regard for the facts”.
“The assistance provided by China has significantly fuelled the economic and social development of these countries and delivered tangible benefits to the local people, which has been warmly welcomed by the governments and people of these countries,” he said.
“We hope that certain people in Australia should engage in self-refection instead of pointing fingers at and making irresponsible remarks on other countries.”
He said China had “lodged representations” with the Australian Government on the issue.
Some analysts were surprised that Senator Fierravanti-Wells used such blunt language in her critique of China.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has taken a more measured tone.
“The Australian Government welcomes investment in developing nations in the Pacific that supports sustainable economic growth, and which does not impose onerous debt burdens on regional governments,” Ms Bishop said in a statement.
“Australia works with a wide range of development partners, including China, in pursuit of the goal of eliminating poverty in our region and globally.”
Aid cuts ‘have diminished Australia’s influence’
But the comments from Senator Fierravanti-Wells reflect growing unease in Canberra about how some Pacific nations are drawing closer to Beijing.
Officials say some Pacific countries are taking on unaffordable debt, and worry that Beijing is cultivating influence by funding projects which directly funnel money back to political leaders.
“We just don’t want to build a road that doesn’t go anywhere,” Senator Fierravanti-Wells said yesterday.
“We want to ensure that the infrastructure that you do build is actually productive and is actually going to give some economic benefit or some sort of health benefit.”
The Lowy Institute estimates China has contributed more than $2.3 billion in aid to the Pacific since 2006.
Last year the Coalition said it would spend more than $100 million to help PNG host the 2018 APEC Summit — in part because officials were worried China would step into the breach if Australia did not.
Frontbencher Chris Bowen stepped up Labor’s attack on the International Development Minister, accusing her of endangering Australia’s relationship with Beijing.
“This sort of megaphone diplomacy being engaged with ministers complaining that China’s spending too much on foreign aid in the Pacific is particularly galling when this government has overseen $11 billion worth of cuts to foreign aid,” Mr Bowen said.
“Just let the hypocrisy sink in for a moment.”
Malcolm Davis from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute backed the senator’s stance on China — but said foreign aid cuts had diminished Australian influence in the Pacific.
“I don’t think it’s in our interest to cut aid budgets to South Pacific states because of course the Chinese will step into the breach,” Dr Davis said.
“Really this is a soft power competition between Australia and China.”
Tensions have been rising between Canberra and Beijing on several fronts in recent months.
In December China lashed out at Australia after the Federal Government unveiled new laws designed to crack down on foreign interference.