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Pacific ports join Australian network amid growing Chinese presence in region

Tuesday, 22 October 2019 | 20:00

Five major Pacific ports have joined an Australian alliance to boost industry investment and trade amid growing international concerns over Beijing’s presence and influence in the region.

The ports, which include Fiji Ports Corporation, Samoa Ports Authority and the Solomon Islands Ports Authority, have signed up as external associate members of peak industry group Ports Australia to formalise maritime sector ties across the region.

Lyttleton Port Company, the largest port in the South Island of New Zealand, and the Port of Napier in the North Island have also signed on in what Ports Australia chief executive Mike Gallacher labelled “a massive step forward” in connecting the sector across the region.

Australia, along with the United States, Britain, New Zealand and Japan, is actively expanding its diplomacy with its “Step Up” program in the Pacific, as Beijing-funded infrastructure projects on many of the tiny island nations threaten to destabilise relations in the Indo-Pacific.

The move by the Solomon Islands Ports Authority, a state-owned enterprise, to join the Australian network follows recent alarm in Canberra at attempts by a Chinese company with close ties to the Chinese Communist Party to lease an island in the nation.

Mr Gallacher said the new formal relationship with the Pacific organisations would focus on “desperately needed” sustainability for the region’s industry, local communities and natural environment.

“With so much happening in terms of growth and international relations across the Pacific at the moment, this move will provide solidarity for our region’s trade and maritime sector,” Mr Gallacher said.

“All ports are unique in the commodities they trade and the challenges that confront them. Sharing knowledge and experience is crucial as our region rapidly grows, both in freight and population.”

Although removed from the Australian government, Ports Australia pitched the benefits of joining its network of both private and publicly owned ports to island nations in Samoa in August at the Pacific Maritime Transport Alliance conference.

Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, who has been caught up in rising diplomatic tensions between the alliance of Western allies and Beijing, told the conference that building ports would service the island communities into the future and encourage community dialogue.

Despite their tiny land mass, Pacific islands control vast areas of resource-rich ocean called Exclusive Economic Zones, which have traditionally formed a formidable boundary between the Western-aligned nations and Asia. Australian and US security establishments have warned that China’s increasingly aggressive push to fund new ports and infrastructure in the region could eventually give Beijing access to territory to use as a military base.

Last year, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald revealed China had approached Vanuatu about building a permanent military presence in the South Pacific in a move that could see the rising superpower sail warships on Australia’s doorstep.

Japan, which is in lockstep with the US, Britain and Australia over concerns about Beijing, recently invested billions in expanding Samoa’s only existing commercial port, Matautu, and is building a bridge connecting the wharf and industrial precincts.

Mr Gallacher said the new partnerships would “unlock a line of communication” between local and international ports, enhancing trade and strengthening the Pacific’s voice in the development of global shipping regulations to drive the future of the industry.

“As we continue building bridges between ports and various service providers on home soil, we look forward to bringing our overseas partners and their unique industry knowledge to the table,” he said. “Each of our member ports benefit from the sharing of information which enhances skill sets and adds to our overall impact in the industry, and the inclusion of these organisations will inject fresh, unique knowledge to that information pool.”
Source: Sydney Morning Herald

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