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What Threat Does China Pose to Australia?

22/05/2013 13:09 BST | Updated 21/07/2013 10:12 BST

The 2013 Australian Defense White Paper (DWP) has left pundits scratching their heads rather than their favorite itch--could it really be that 'the China threat' is more puff and magic than an actual dragon at the doorstep?

Abstraction aside, the new DWP's focus on security in Australia's "near neighborhood" should give pause to policy hawks obsessed with the next great clash of world superpowers. The real issue here isn't whether China poses a security threat to Australia. The real issue is the threat it poses to Australian influence in the region.

The DWP is "nothing short of a repudiation" from the more hawkish stance of its 2009 predecessor. Rather than decrying China's military spending as a threat to global stability and suggesting it may be time to pick a side between the United States and Asia's largest economy, the DWP is now taking a more pragmatic position of partnership and shared opportunity.

The latest Lowy Institute report, 'Big Enough for All of Us: Geo-strategic Competition in the Pacific Islands' by Jenny Hayward-Jones, takes that one step further. Hayward-Jones debunks much of the hardline rhetoric framing China's current interests in the South Pacific.

Both papers speak to the need to fundamentally rethink what composes security in the South Pacific. As Hayward-Jones writes, the Cold War mentality of "geo-strategic competition is not only inappropriate, it is counter-productive."

China's "ability to seriously challenge the role of longstanding powers in the region such as Australia and the United States is limited," Hayward-Jones writes. Yet, there is this insistence on measuring security in an outdated framework.

What kind of security are we really talking about here?

As Fijian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom Solo Mara recently pointed out, the security interests of the world's superpowers mean little to most Pacific Islanders.

In Papua New Guinea, 85% of the population lives in rural areas relying on semi-subsistence farming. How concerned are they over submarines or nuclear deterrence?

A real security threat for Pacific Islanders is a human security threat. The disastrous drought in the Marshall Islands is a threat, as is water scarcity and disastrous storms. These are all threats intensified by climate change that directly threaten people's livelihoods.

Australia has long been an ally and generous donor to Pacific Island Countries. It has helped to build resilience to these threats and helped in recovering when they have occurred. The problem is that Australia has been an inconsistent ally, as a recent study by the University of Melbourne explains.

And this is where China comes into things.

What growing Chinese engagement really means in the region is simple: choice.

The government in Suva has a choice. The trader in Nuku'alofa has a choice. Australia is losing its security--it no longer controls the policy space.

To those in the development community, the finger-wagging of China-skeptics is a shocking display of ahistorical hypocrisy. Accusations of Beijing 'wining and dining' diplomats, locking countries into oppressive debts, supporting 'regimes' and arming foreign militaries-- these aren't new threats, this isn't a new game. It's just someone else playing it.

The reality is that many states are willing to hedge their bets with China as the trump card. Zhou Enlai's "Eight Principles" of aid have proven remarkably attractive to other late developing countries, while simultaneously making it more difficult for Western powers to impose liberal economic and political values on those who may not want them.

The argument has always been that China lacked the soft power to ever truly make an impact in geopolitics. It may be time to rethink that.

China doesn't have to be the largest donor or the strongest military presence to affect the balance of power in the South Pacific. All it has to do is offer a choice.