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‘Strategic vacuum’ in Pacific opens the door for China, Kevin Rudd says

“Therefore, what inattention to our own region has made possible is the opening of a number of doors within the neighbourhood to the possibility of a greater, more enhanced Chinese strategic presence.

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“Canberra needs to have a long, hard look at itself and how it allowed this to unfold in recent years.

“It needs to take a radical reverse action as a matter of urgency.”

Mr Morrison has unveiled a “Pacific Step Up” to respond to increasing Chinese influence in the region but the government has maintained the lower aid spending put in place by Tony Abbott as prime minister and kept in place under Malcolm Turnbull.

“The Prime Minister may now be speaking about a ‘step up’ but inertia on this subject by the Australian government since 2013 has created a genuine strategic vacuum,” Mr Rudd said in an interview ahead of his speech.

“I hope this is not too little too late.”

The Abbott government cut foreign aid spending by $8 billion over five years in the May 2014 budget, launching what aid group World Vision later called the “darkest era of aid cuts” in Australian history.

Lowy Institute research fellow Alexandre Dayant estimated in April this year that Australia remained the largest single donor in about $US2 billion in foreign aid spent in the Pacific every year but that China was becoming more important.

The institute’s Pacific Aid Map showed Australia was the biggest contributor to aid in the “governance” sector including administration but that China played a bigger role in spending on infrastructure.

Australia contributed 26 per cent of total aid on transport in the region while China contributed 25 per cent, the Asian Development Bank another 20 per cent and the World Bank 11 per cent.

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Mr Morrison has pledged $3 billion towards infrastructure in the Pacific and embarked on a significant personal effort to tighten links with leaders around the region, including at the Pacific Islands Forum in Tuvalu on August 13.

Mr Rudd, now the president of the Asia Society Policy Institute in New York, will speak at the Asia Society in Melbourne on Thursday morning on the risks to global growth and Australia from the rising trade tensions between China and the United States.

US trade representative Robert Lighthizer and Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin arrived in Shanghai on Tuesday for talks with Vice-Premier Liu He and others to try to settle disputes.

Amid that effort, however, US President Donald Trump tweeted that China was not buying US agricultural exports as it had promised.

“China is doing very badly, worst year in 27 – was supposed to start buying our agricultural product now – no signs that they are doing so,” Mr Trump wrote.

“That is the problem with China, they just don’t come through.

“China has lost five million jobs and two million manufacturing jobs due to the Trump Tariffs. Trump’s got China back on its heels, and the United States is doing great.”

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