Chinese Premier Li Keqiang passes the ball to Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull before the start of an Australian Football League game during Li's visit to the country in 2017. Photo: Reuters/David Gray

Australia has renewed its animosity toward China in the new year, Chinese newspapers say, citing criticism from Canberra’s minister for international development and the Pacific, Concetta Fierravanti-Wells.

She said recently that China-invested infrastructure projects in South Pacific island countries were far less than effective, such as “roads that go nowhere,” and that Beijing had imposed “overbearing” clauses and “concessional loans” in its financial aid to these underdeveloped parts of the world.

Such remarks as “we just don’t want to build something for the heck of building it” were obviously aimed at China, adding more strain to the long-running tension between Beijing and Canberra concerning alleged espionage, political meddling and trade relations.

Australian Minister for International Development and the Pacific Concetta Fierravanti-Wells. Photo: Australian Government

In a retort, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry said on Thursday that allegations from anti-China reactionaries like Fierravanti-Wells were unfounded and that only the governments and people of the recipient countries have the final verdict as to the usefulness and effectiveness of China-led projects.

According to estimates by Sydney-based think-tank the Lowy Institute, China contributed more than A$2.3 billion (US$1.8 billion) in aid to the Pacific countries in the decade since 2006, while the administrations of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and his predecessor Tony Abbott accumulatively slashed A$11 billion from Australia’s development budget, including aid for neighboring South Pacific nations. That’s allowed China to step into the void.

The specter of Chinese influence has become a constant source of headlines in Australia. Photo: Reuters/Petar Kujundzic

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported on Wednesday that Australian officials complained in private about Beijing’s surreptitious practice to win favor by funding projects with money “directly funneled to leaders in the region.”

Fierravanti-Wells also told ABC that she was concerned about the ability of Pacific countries such as Fiji and Papua New Guinea to pay back the loans that Beijing offers them.

Turnbull has been seeking to curb China’s influence in the region. For instance, he pledged last year to foot at least a third of the costs of Papua New Guinea’s ambitious plan to host the 2018 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit to countervail the rising Chinese influence in the poverty-stricken nation.

Interestingly, whenever the Australian political circle and public discourse are stocked with rhetoric slamming Chinese hegemonism, Chinese newspapers including the Global Times have come up with similar accusations against Australian politicians.

The Global Times has alleged that Nick Warner, director general of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, once threatened Manasseh Sogavare, then prime minister of Solomon Islands, that if his country insisted on hiring Chinese telecommunications conglomerate Huawei to build a 4,000-kilometer submarine-cable connection to Sydney, Australia “would use torpedoes to destroy these cables.”

Senior officials of Solomon Islands and Huawei executives and engineers attend the launching ceremony of a submarine cable project. Photo: Huawei

However, it appears that the Global Times had put words in Warner’s mouth. He had actually merely expressed concerns that the Huawei-installed cables might be vulnerable to external threats such as torpedoes, according to Fairfax Media. Warner said Australia could refuse to grant the landing rights if the cable project endangered its national security.

Read more:

China’s soft power turns hard in Australia

Australia’s hard choice between China and US

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