China’s bold plan on Australia’s doorstep
China's about to build a major fishing port on Australia's doorstep. But there's no fish there to catch. So what's it actually for?
The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) has highlighted a move by Beijing to spend $200 million on the southern Papua New Guinea village of Daru.
It's the closest PNG town to Australia and it also sits on top of the narrow - but strategically important - Torres Strait.
Now China's state-controlled Fujian Zhonghong Fishery Company has signed a deal with the PNG government to build a "comprehensive multifunctional fishery industrial park" there.
"In a remote and woefully underdeveloped community like Daru, a $200 million project will have a massive impact," writes former government PNG affairs advisor Jeffrey Wall.
"But the question that needs to be asked is simple: why Daru?"
China's hunger for fish is growing. Its fleets have been implicated in a spate of 'ghost ships' - wrecks carrying dead North Korean fishers - washing up on Japan's shores. Its ships have been caught 'going dark' to cross into the world heritage Galapagos Islands nature reserve. Its military-controlled coast guard has sat intimidatingly nearby as it encroached on foreign territories ranging from the Philippines to Chile.
"I'm assured by people with a reasonable knowledge of PNG's fisheries that there are no commercial fishing grounds close to Daru," Wall states. "A $200 million 'fishery' investment in an area not known for an abundance of fisheries but strategically as close to Australia as you can get, surely raises questions about the real agenda."
The answer may lie in the fleet's militia nature.
China's Communist Party controlled fishers are trained to assist the People's Liberation Army. Political commissars stand by their captains. And they have a history of being used as diplomatic shock-troops to assert Beijing's territorial claims.
ANU visiting fellow and Australasia Strategy Group director Dominic Meagher tweeted: "It may be useful to recall that 'fishing boats' (irregular naval militia) helped China seize Philippines' territory in the 'unmilitarised' South China Sea."
Access to the narrow - and shallow - waters to Australia's north has been a bone of contention in recent years.
In 2015, then Trade Minister Andrew Robb signed off on a $506 billion, 99-year Port of Darwin lease to the Chinese state-owned Landbridge Group. A year later he resigned to take on a $880,000-a-year "high-level economic consultancy" role with Landbridge despite its ties to the People's Liberation Army.
The United States was furious. It had plans to use Darwin and the Northern Territory as a major Marine Corps and Naval base to counteract China's ballooning regional influence. Those plans were now at risk.
Then treasurer Scott Morrison insisted he had been "acutely aware of the sensitivities regarding foreign investment in strategic national assets and critical infrastructure". But the fallout continues to be felt even as the US Navy seeks an Indo-Pacific base for its freshly formed First Fleet.
A major Chinese logistic facility supporting militia and coast guard vessels at Daru would have similar strategic implications.
"China's armed fishing militia plays an instrumental role in Beijing's strategy to enforce its sovereignty claims in the South China Sea and East China Sea," the RAND Corporation noted in a recent report.
It does this on the principle that possession is nine-tenths of the law. So, simply having ships on the water is its way to challenge control over disputed territory.
"These classic 'grey zone' operations are designed to 'win without fighting' by overwhelming the adversary with swarms of fishing vessels usually bolstered from the rear together with (coast guard), and possibly (navy) ships," it reads.
A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE
The United States Navy is increasingly busy in Australian waters. And it considers China's fishing militia a threat.
"The US Navy would respond to aggressive acts by those ships as though they were part of the armed forces … as they engage in a variety of peacetime missions and receive military training to conduct operations during armed hostilities," James Kraska, Professor of International Maritime Law at the US Naval War College recently warned.
Professor Kraska says Beijing's fleet is the world's worst biggest offender for illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. It's also a major tool in Beijing's aggressive territorial expansion policies.
"PAFMM vessels also have engaged in direct-action, unconventional operations in support of the PLA-N (navy) and CCG (coast guard) encounters with US naval vessels and those of regional states in the South China Sea and the East China Sea," he notes.
In the run-up to a conflict, the maritime militia may employ coercive tactics, such as ramming vessels to goad an adversary into striking back, while CCG and even PLAN forces wait over the horizon to rush to the scene and 'teach a lesson'."
Wall points out Australia's relationship with PNG and the village of Daru have been mostly harmonious, with both sides respecting a comprehensive fishing treaty for the area.
Adding China's notoriously aggressive fishing boats and their supporting coast guard vessels to the mix, however, has serious implications.
"It will hardly be ideal for the Australian Border Force, which patrols the strait, to have to decide which fishing boats and crew are actually from PNG and which might be fronts for Chinese operators from the 'multifaceted' facility," Wall states.
That offers Beijing an opportunity to drive a wedge in Australian-PNG relations, and to wedge Australian-US relations.
"If Australia is to stop the project from proceeding any further, it will need to move fast," Wall argues. "Whatever Australia opts to do, its response will have to be substantial, people focused and readily achievable."
Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel
Originally published as China's bold plan on Australia's doorstep