Australia’s newfound strategic competition in the South Pacific is proving to be a headache for Canberra. Until recently, Australia — working in tandem with New Zealand — had comfortably been able to operate as the region’s prime actor, secure in its status as the overwhelming top regional power. Yet, this lack of competition seemed to have bred complacency, an assumption that the South Pacific would be a permanent sphere of unchallenged influence. Now with Beijing keen to explore its burgeoning capabilities, Canberra seems to have been caught a bit flat-footed.
It was noted last week that some of the shortwave radio frequencies that Radio Australia ceased broadcasting on early last year had been taken over by China Radio International, the Chinese state broadcaster, allowing Beijing to move into broadcasting space that had been a trusted component of quality information and projection of Australian values for almost 80 years. As many as 10 frequencies that Radio Australia had previous used now broadcast China Radio International programs.
Radio Australia is the international broadcasting (and online) service operated by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). The ABC, like its British counterpart the BBC, is owned by the Australian state; however, it operates independently of the government. Despite this hands-off relationship, it still forms a significant component of the state’s international public diplomacy, and is a vital component of Australia’s soft power projection.
The ABC began its shortwave service in 1939, and initially used it to counter propaganda transmissions by the Axis powers throughout the region. Understanding its value to the national interest, the service expanded over time to adopt new technologies as they arose, with higher quality radio signals and digital services, as well as further content that expanded the broadcaster’s reach. Radio Australia provided services throughout the Asia-Pacific in Mandarin, Bahasa Indonesia, Khmer, Burmese, and Vietnamese; however, major budget cuts in 2015 saw broadcasts in these languages abandoned. There remains some online content in Mandarin and Bahasa Indonesia, but Radio Australia now operates primarily in English, with a small arm in Tok Pisin for Papua New Guinea (PNG), and limited services in French for the Francophone Pacific.
Alongside the abandonment of its array of regional language broadcasts, last year’s cessation of its shortwave services demonstrated a major lack of foresight. While shortwave technology may seem outdated to those in Australia, the technology still performs a vital service throughout the Pacific. Shortwave transmissions can can travel thousands of kilometers and be picked up by low-cost radios run on batteries or solar power.
In remote parts of the Melanesian states of PNG, the Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu there is no access to an FM radio signal, and limited and expensive internet availability. To many people in these remote regions, Radio Australia’s shortwave broadcasts were their only ready source of credible and reliable news and information, including emergency service information (crucial in a region prone to natural disasters). FM frequencies can also easily be shut down by authorities, as Fiji’s Frank Bainimarama did in 2009. Shortwave doesn’t have such vulnerabilities, making the service an essential asset in times of political unrest.
At the time the shortwave services were shut down, Vanuatu Prime Minister Charlot Salwai expressed his concern about the move. Citing the country’s experience with Cyclone Pam in 2015, he stated, “some of the most reliable and comprehensive early warnings and post-disaster information came from Radio Australia’s shortwave service. Australian shortwave assisted communities to prepare for, survive and recover from a terrible natural disaster. For us it is not outdated technology at all. It is appropriate and ‘fit-for-purpose’ and an important means to inform and safeguard Ni-Vanuatu people.”
There seems to be broadly two main reasons for the decision to shut down Radio Australia’s shortwave broadcasts. First, a disconnect between the lives led by ABC management and the people throughout the Pacific that Radio Australia was designed to serve (highlighted by Salwai). And second, the incessant hostility toward the ABC from The Australian newspaper (in particular) and elements within the Liberal Party, leading to a culture of constant anxiety and second-guessing within the organization. Last week The Australian was forced to issue an apology for reader comments on its website threatening to burn down the ABC’s Sydney offices. And in a display of ideological chest-beating two weeks ago at a meeting of the Liberal Party council, the party voted to sell off the national broadcaster.
Although several government ministers have stated that selling off the ABC is not government policy, nor will it be, the culture that these events create makes it very difficult for the ABC to operate in an effective capacity. While strident elements within the Liberal Party — and their sympathetic press — have failed to understand the wider implications of their ideological crusades, the issue of China Radio International taking over Radio Australia’s former shortwave frequencies may bring these implications into clearer view for them.
It should also bring the Australian government a clearer picture of the efforts it now requires to maintain influence in the South Pacific, and become highly aware of what infrastructure it has in place throughout the region. Australia’s primary asset is its longstanding regional presence and positive legacy, but this incident has made it clear that Beijing will swiftly move into any of the spaces Australia abandons, and Canberra will lack the capability to reclaim them.
The Australian government is currently conducting a review of all Australian broadcasting services throughout the Asia-Pacific region.