Australia's plan to challenge China in the South Pacific

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi shake hands at a news conference at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing Thursday.

Dr. John Lee is senior fellow at the Hudson Institute (Washington) and United States Studies Centre (Sydney), and an adjunct professor at the University of Sydney. From 2016 until April 2018 he was senior national security adviser to the Australian foreign minister and also served as the lead adviser on the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper. The opinions expressed here are his own.

(CNN)On the day Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne met Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in Beijing to signal the beginning of a thaw in the Australia-China bilateral relationship, her boss, Prime Minister Scott Morrison, announced a $2.2 billion infrastructure package as part of the government's "step-up to the Pacific."

Few Australian politicians want to admit that the "step-up" is targeted against another country. But it is occurring as Australians are becoming increasingly concerned with the significant Chinese increase of its diplomatic, economic and potentially military presence in the South Pacific, an area that has long been considered by Canberra to be its "backyard."
The motivation for this massive investment is the worst kept secret in Australian foreign policy: Australians know it is about China; the South Pacific Islands know it is about China; even Beijing knows it is about China.
    Is Australia over-reacting? If not, why now? And can an economy less than one-eighth the size of China's really compete with the latter's ambitions in the South Pacific?
    John Lee
    For foreigners, the national importance Australia attaches to the Pacific might be difficult to understand. In April 2018, Australian media reports claimed China had approached Vanuatu about building up its military presence on the island, and potentially opening a military base. Having given the island of around 270,000 people hundreds of millions of dollars of development aid, the reports also indicated that Beijing had been negotiating with Vanuatu about host and even basing rights for People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy ships.
    No subsequent proof of these supposed negotiations was released. It was later denied by Vanuatu and rubbished by China. Even so, the reports generated at least as much popular interest and concern as China's well-known island-building program in the South China Sea and militarization of these artificial islands.
    In Australian strategic circles, the notion of a supposed naval base around 2,500 kilometers (1,500 miles) from its shoreline did more than raise eyebrows. It played into the country's sense of vulnerability.
    As reaffirmed in the 2016 Defense White Paper, the highest priority has been given to ensuring that no potentially hostile power is able to approach the Australian continent from Southeast Asia or the South Pacific in its national defense strategy.
    Moreover, it has long been unofficial policy between allies that the United States and Japan secure Northeast Asia, the US with Australian support secures Southeast Asia, and Australia takes the primary responsibility for securing the South Pacific. Perhaps a naval base hosting PLA vessels in Vanuatu was never in t