- Phil Mislinski/Getty Images
- China has taken over a number of radio frequencies that previously carried Australian broadcasts into the Pacific region.
- Australia broadcast to Pacific audiences, many of whom can’t receive FM radio or internet, for 88 years ending in 2016.
- Some considered stopping the broadcasts a “foreign-policy mishap.”
- Taking over the airwaves shows how countries like Australia and the US, keep leaving a vacuum for China to fill when it comes to aid and infrastructure.
- Despite its radio retreat, Australia is spending millions of dollars from its aid budget to stop a Chinese firm building infrastructure in the Pacific.
China has taken over a number of radio frequencies once run by Australia as it seeks to expand its influence in the Pacific region.
Australia’s national broadcaster ABC used to provide shortwave radio broadcasts to remote parts of the Pacific that still can’t receive FM radio or the internet. Australia offered the broadcasts for 88 years but ended the service in December 2016, a move that saved about $2 million a year but some experts called it a huge diplomatic error and “foreign policy misstep.”
Since the Australia’s retreat, China Radio International has begun broadcasting on as many as 10 frequencies once used by the ABC, including those reaching Vanuatu, Fiji, Samoa, Solomon Islands and New Caledonia.
“Since Radio Australia has dropped off shortwave, many of the exact frequencies we used to use have been now taken over by Chinese stations targeting the Asia Pacific region,” former ABC technology editor Peter Marks said this week.
“There’s obviously a bit of interest there… the fact that China has been ramping up while we’ve been pulling back,” Marks added.
The situation shows Western countries can leave behind a vacuum when it comes to diplomacy, infrastructure, and aid that China can easily fill.
Earlier this year John Garnaut, a former adviser on China to Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull who also authored a secret report on China’s attempts to influence politics, told the US House Armed Services Committee that the US, Australia, and other leading nations have stopped investing in Chinese education and global development, allowing China to take control.
“China is really filling a service we are failing to provide,” Garnaut said. “If we’re – between us – no longer supporting development in the way that we used to in my part of the world, in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, it provides opportunities for others.”
Garnaut gave President Xi Jinping’s pet project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which will link 70 countries, as an example, saying that “With BRI, obviously again they filled a vacuum.” Just this week the prime minister of Papua New Guinea, Australia’s closest neighbor, signed onto the project which has raised concerns of debt-trap diplomacy.
The other issue is that Australia, which is leading the charge against attempts of China’s foreign interference, is spending extraordinary amounts of money to prevent Beijing from gaining a foothold in the Pacific.
From 2006 to 2016, Beijing funded 218 projects with aid and concessional loans amounting to $1.7 billion.
Following concerns from intelligence chiefs over a contract for China’s Huawei to build an underwater telecommunications cable connecting Australia and the Solomon Islands, Australia swooped in and inked a deal instead. The government last week agreed to pay around $148 million to fund the cable, money which will come from the country’s $3.1 billion aid budget.
And as China focuses on growing its soft power by significantly bolstering its foreign-focused media this year, the decision to abandon Pacific airwaves to China could prove strategically short-sighted.