Reports of a planned Chinese naval base on a Pacific island nation’s territory in 2018 helped supercharge policy makers’ attention on China’s strategic intentions and rapidly growing economic influence in the island nations of the south Pacific: what Australia’s prime minister Scott Morrison has called “our patch”. But in many ways, the debate in Australia and the US lagged far behind the reality on the ground. These days the Chinese presence – from state owned enterprises, infrastructure projects, commercial ventures and a significant new wave of immigration – is, according to the director of the Lowy Institute’s Pacific Islands program Jonathan Pryke, everywhere in these tiny island nations.

On episode 15 of Rules Based Audio, Pryke talks us through China in the Pacific, from the low-probability, high-impact risks of a Chinese naval base, to the high probability risk of state failure due to endemic corruption that has been facilitated at scale by Chinese state-owned-enterprises.

But first, a case study: Vanuatu is reaping over $100 million a year from the sale of passports, mostly to Chinese nationals; while there has been a big step up in Chinese loans and direct investment. But when earlier this year, Vanuatu-based journalist Dan McGarry reported on the secret dawn arrest of six Chinese nationals – by local police in the presence of Chinese security officials – who were then deported without charge to China, he apparently crossed a line for the island nation’s government. McGarry has been refused re-entry to Vanuatu, his home of 16 years, and is currently unable to return to his wife and kids there.  I spoke to McGarry about the ways the authoritarian giant’s influence is playing out in the tiny democratic nation of 280,000.

Jonathan Pryke is the director of the Lowy Institute’s Pacific Islands program and Dan McGarry is formerly media director of the Vanuatu Daily Post.

Rules Based Audio is a half-hour, fortnightly podcast covering stories from the cracks and faultlines in the global order, hosted by Kelsey Munro and powered by the Lowy Institute. 

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The Lowy Institute is part of the  Pacific Research Program