China lodged a formal complaint with the Australian government yesterday after a minister publicly criticised China for constructing "useless buildings" and "roads to nowhere" to spread its influence among poor Pacific countries.
Using language observers called "clumsy" and "blunt", Australia’s minister for international development, Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, used media interviews to claim this form of diplomacy saddled countries with unsupportable debt.
On the same day Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang told reporters her comments were "full of ignorance and bias", and his country lodged a protest to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s government over the issue.
"Not just for the heck of it": Australia’s minister for international development, Concetta Fierravanti-Wells (Wikimedia Commons)
The two countries are major trading partners but Australia has been worried about China’s growing influence in the region.
The spat comes a month after ties between the two were strained by Turnbull introducing laws to crack down on interference by overseas powers, citing China’s expanding reach as a reason.
China is disbursing billions of dollars in loans for building and infrastructure schemes as part of its One Belt, One Road strategy, and this largesse has included small Pacific nations.
One such country is Papua New Guinea, where, in November, China Railway Group signed agreements totalling approximately $4bn to upgrade the country’s road network.
Before that, in February, a Chinese consortium announced plans to build a $4bn industrial complex there.
Fierravanti-Wells told broadcaster ABC that she was concerned that some Pacific countries were taking on debts they could not afford to repay.
"We just don’t want to build a road that doesn’t go anywhere," Senator Fierravanti-Wells told ABC.
"We want to ensure that the infrastructure that you do build is actually productive and is actually going to give some economic benefit or some sort of health benefit."
She added: "In other words, we just don’t want to build something for the heck of building it."
Reacting to her comments, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said in Beijing that China respected the will of the Pacific islands’ governments and their people.
"Our assistance has greatly improved the economic development of the countries and brought tangible benefits," Lu told a media briefing on Wednesday, reports Bloomberg. "We don’t think other countries are in a position to point fingers at China."
Fierravanti-Wells’ colleague, resources and energy minister Josh Frydenberg supported her.
"When it comes to sustainable debt management and economically productive investments she is absolutely right that this needs to be a priority for our Pacific partners," he told ABC Radio on Thursday.
But Labor opposition Senator Penny Wong said the Turnbull government’s attack on the Chinese program was "clumsy", and accused the federal government of cutting Australia overseas aid, reports the Sydney Morning Herald.
Research by the Lowy Institute suggests that China’s aid to the Pacific region has grown substantially in recent years, with China committing more than US$1.7bn to eight Pacific Island countries from 2006 to 2016.
Writing today on the row sparked by Fierravanti-Wells, the institute’s regional director Jonathan Pryke said: "While her concerns are legitimate, her blunt delivery hasn’t been constructive and has led to some considerable political and diplomatic fallout."
"Is Chinese aid in the Pacific useless?" Pryke asked. "The answer is not so simple. China’s aid program is so opaque it is very difficult to understand exactly what it is doing."