Scott Morrison at the Pacific Islands Forum
(Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

This is part two in a two-part series on Australia’s international humanitarian response to the pandemic. Read part one here.

Australia’s international aid efforts are being slashed as a result of the pandemic. Our troops have withdrawn from war-torn areas. Cash has been repurposed from existing aid programs, with no new funding available. Shortwave radio broadcasts have been cancelled across the Pacific.

Australia has left a hole in international humanitarian aid over the course of this pandemic. But, at the same time, China has stepped up. China has assisted our neighbours with troops, communications, and direct cash grants.

What will this mean for us further down the track?

The rise of mask diplomacy

China has taken the lead on what’s been dubbed “mask diplomacy”. This involves sharing what a country has — in China’s case, access to useful medical equipment — in return for public favour.

“It’s no surprise China is using this to increase its influence in the region,” said Melissa Conley Tyler, a research fellow at the Asia Institute of The University of Melbourne.

“It’s one reason Australia is working with our Pacific neighbours. Being there at difficult times is how you build relationships.” 

China has donated more than $2.5 million to Pacific Island countries in direct cash grants and funding for medical supplies. It has drafted a free trade agreement with Fiji, and launched a large-scale international humanitarian aid campaign dispatching medical items around the world and providing places like Vanuatu with ventilators and test kits

“China’s foreign policy, like all countries’, is to promote its national interest and get a good deal. The Pacific isn’t one of their highest priorities,” Conley Tyler said.

The Pacific might not be high on China’s list — but it is on Australia’s. 

Australia’s aid budget is at the lowest level it has ever been, at just over $4 billion. Most of that goes to the Pacific, with funding cut from other regions in recent years.

When the pandemic hit, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) announced $280 million in aid — but all of this was repurposed from pre-existing programs. More than a third of that funding has already been given out to help with basic running costs in the Pacific.

Our landmark aid program, the large loan-based Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific (AIFFP) — unveiled by a flower-laden Prime Minister Scott Morrison as he toured Tuvalu — is yet to formally announce a single project more than a year after it was created. 

A DFAT spokesperson told Inq several infrastructure investments are in the final stages of negotiation.

The AIFFP doesn’t quite compare to China’s direct cash grants, executive director of Global Health Alliance Australia Misha Coleman told Inq. “This flagship program is a loan facility and it means countries accessing those loans will be going into more debt,” she said. 

“If a donor government is offering overseas development aid then it will be more attractive to a lower income government than a loan facility.” 

Since the emergence of the pandemic, work on a new international development policy has stalled. Sixty positions from DFAT will also be cut, with contractual workers in IT and policy roles axed. CEO of the Australian Council for International Development Marc Purcell told Inq little was being done to address the aid gap. 

“Despite the prime minister’s assessment that COVID-19 will make the world poorer, more dangerous and more disorderly, there is no new, additional funding for the international development response,” he said.

“Instead, existing ODA [official development assistance] programs have been stopped or repurposed.”

What about our troops? 

The Morrison government has announced a $270 billion plan to increase Australia’s defence capabilities, upping expenditure to 2% of our GDP.

In the face of the pandemic, troops around the world have been pulled back to Australia and to the main logistics base in the Middle East. Some have been redeployed nationally to assist with state border control, regional lockdowns and hotel quarantine.

Alexey Muraviev, associate professor of national security and strategic studies at Curtin University, told Inq that “some foreign militaries are being used in response to COVID-19, enforcing lockdown and providing emergency medical supplies … [but] our medical units are relatively small compared to other militaries”.

“I’m not aware that we have been providing significant assistance outside of Australia,” Muraviev said.  

Medical Association for Prevention of War president Sue Wareham said this a good thing. “Using military troops for humanitarian purposes can be a slippery slope,” she said. “Quickly the boundary between what is humanitarian and what is political becomes blurred.”

While troops aren’t the answer, doing so little during the pandemic simply isn’t a solution, she said. “Humanitarian aid promotes good relationships … Australia has an interest in healthcare far from our shores.”

When the extra funding was announced, Liberal MP and former diplomat Dave Sharma called for the same amount of money to be spent on diplomacy.

Radio silence

Part of Australia’s $280 million pandemic response has involved helping Pacific nations with public information campaigns.

But this comes off the back of crucial funding cuts to the ABC which, in 2017, resulted in Radio Australia switching off its shortwave transmissions across the Pacific. In 2018, China Radio International snatched up some of the shortwave radio frequencies. 

Coleman said this loss of content was a loss of opportunity. 

“If we want to be informing our region in a credible way and maintaining our relationship with populations with very limited access to free and fair media, cutting shortwave capacity is the worst possible scenario,” she said. 

“We want to make sure populations are getting good quality information and advice.” This has become even more crucial during the pandemic.   

The Australian government did, however, find $17 million to repurpose some Australian television content including Neighbours, MasterChef and The Voice

Why does all this matter?

Foreign aid is not a popular concept. Petitions to cease all overseas development funds following the pandemic have been submitted to parliament.

But humanitarian assistance benefits Australia’s national interest. It makes us the first choice for trade partnerships and creates a barrier of secure, friendly countries. Plus, as COVID-19 has shown, limiting disease abroad limits disease at home. 

Aid contributes to a range of Australia’s interests, Conley Tyler said. “When we talk about Australia’s foreign policy goals we look at security, prosperity, and what’s contributing to global issues.

“We want to be a part of shaping a region.”

According to DFAT’s “Partnerships for Recovery” paper, one in five Australians’ jobs depend on global trade. Two-thirds of our agriculture production is exported to overseas markets.

“By providing the high-quality support that Australia is known for … we will be investing in Australia’s relationships with our region for the long-term,” the paper notes. 

Unfortunately, as Conley Tyler said, “the needs in the region are dwarfing Australia’s contribution”.