FIVE countries and one region are going to the polls this year to get a fresh and new mandate from their electorate, and while this will no doubt provide interesting results, the trend to watch though in 2019 may be something beyond the result that comes out of the ballot box. How China pushes its influence through its much touted Belt and Road Initiative through and over the islands of Oceania is predicted to be the development that will keep analysts and commentators busy over the coming months.
Ramification of the paradigm shift in the world’s geopolitics has been felt in some parts of the Pacific very early in 2019. The region’s first woman leader of an independent state in the Pacific, President Hilda Hein of the Marshall Islands narrowly survived a confidence motion against her in her island’s legislature and she accused China for influencing her opponents to introduce the motion. The country she leads is one of the five that will be holding general elections during the year, and for someone who came into power by default, her bid to win another new term from the electorate will be closely followed.
January also saw a whirlwind tour of Vanuatu and Fiji by Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison. He stayed away from last year’s Pacific Islands Forum Leaders summit in Nauru, so the decision to do island hopping intrigued not a few observers of regional politics. The disquiet about China’s growing influence in the islands, and its championing of its Belt and Road Initiative with millions of Yuan of aid no doubt was one of the factors that prompted the visit.
News that Vanuatu had entered into a $130m aid agreement with China during the summit President Xi Jinping held with Pacific Island leaders at the margins of the Asia Pacific Economic Council meeting that Papua New Guinea hosted last November no doubt triggered alarm bells in Canberra. Fiji on the other hand had indicated its willingness to partner with Australia, not Beijing in the development of its military training base near Nadi International Airport, on the west coast of the country’s main island.
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