To challenge China’s influence in Pacific, Australia turns to rugby league in soft-power offensive
The plan, backed by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, aims to tap into a shared passion for the bruising game — which differs from its more globally popular cousin, rugby union — by funding more coaching clinics and exhibition matches on far-flung Pacific islands being wooed by China.
Declaring the Pacific “our patch,” Australia is stepping up its diplomatic and trade efforts in the region, uneasy at China’s bid for influence through infrastructure loans and its version of soft power — “pingpong” diplomacy.
China’s encouragement has helped table tennis gain a foothold in Papua New Guinea but it is unlikely to challenge the island’s love affair with rugby league.
Such is the region’s passion for the game that when Australia played a friendly match in PNG in 2016, thousands of people lined the streets to catch a glimpse of the visitors.
“Together with the government we have plans to expand into the Cook Islands, Niue and Vanuatu,” said Frank Puletua, senior manager of international strategy at the NRL.
The three island nations have signed up to China’s “Belt and Road” initiative, which promotes expanding land and sea links between Asia, Africa and Europe, with billions of dollars for infrastructure development.
The NRL already runs programs in Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa, all of which have joined “Belt and Road.”
In response to China’s investment push, Australia has promised Pacific neighbors up to 3 billion Australian dollars ($2.16 billion) in cheap infrastructure loans and grants, but the new fund is not expected to be operational until July.
Unable to match China’s deeper pockets and its willingness to fund projects that Australia will not — such as a new road in PNG — Australia has dialed up a playbook that promotes its cultural ties with the region.
During a trip to Fiji, Morrison said his government will pay the travel costs for a Fijian rugby league team to compete in the second tier of Australia’s national competition, joining a team from PNG that has competed since 2013.
“One thing we have greatly in common is our passion for sport,” Morrison said in Fiji’s capital, Suva.
“Our shared passion has a practical element to the relationship between our countries.”