How Australia can exploit China’s stadium diplomacy
20 Jun 2024|

China continues to pursue stadium diplomacy in the Pacific, building stadiums and training facilities to gain favour and influence in Pacific island countries.

Australia can take advantage of China’s efforts with sports diplomacy that engages those countries in ongoing high-level sports activities over the long term, making better use of what are sometimes white-elephant facilities. Doing so would help build connections with the governments and people of Pacific island countries.

Canberra’s recent announcement of a Sports Diplomacy Consultative Group indicates we may be ready to seize this opportunity. What’s needed is government cooperation with peak Australian sporting organisations to increase the presence of our national sporting teams and athletes in the region.

For the moment, that presence is underwhelming, despite Australia’s proximity to Pacific island countries, large Pasifika diasporas and many athletes of Pacific Islander descent.

For example, the Wallabies, Australia’s national rugby union team, haven’t played Fiji outside of a Rugby World Cup since 2017, when Fiji toured Australia. In the 2023 World Cup, Fiji eliminated Australia. Clearly, we could do with more practice against the Flying Fijians, and the opportunity would be well received in Suva.

It’s a similar situation in soccer. The national women’s team, the Matildas, rarely play against opposition from Southeast Asia or the Pacific. Since 2018, their only games against teams from those regions have been one against Indonesia and one against Thailand. Both games were at the Women’s Asian Cup 2022. The Matildas should be more present and play a greater role in developing women’s football in Australia’s immediate region.

Australia’s men’s team—the Socceroos—and teams in the domestic A-League are similar, rarely playing against Southeast Asian competition outside a cup setting.

Initiatives under the PacificAus Sports program of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade have already demonstrated the value of a professional sports-diplomacy approach, working with Rugby Australia to successfully integrate the men’s and women’s Fijian Drua and Moana Pasifika teams into the Super Rugby. Fijian Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka underscored the importance of professional sport collaboration to the Fiji-Australia Vuvale Partnership in February. In a further display of closeness in April, he travelled to Brisbane to watch the Fiji Drua women’s grand-final appearance.

The new Sports Diplomacy Consultative Group, creation of which is the first announced update to Australia’s Sports Diplomacy 2030 strategy, should be a purpose-built mechanism to coordinate Australia’s professional sporting presence in the region. The group, aiming to bring together Australia’s internationally focused peak sporting organisations and the department, ought to be able to seek to coordinate a strategy of high-level sports engagement across the Pacific. Ideally, it would do so alongside complementary initiatives working to develop connections from the professional to the grassroots level and support Pacific athletes’ access to Australia for training and high-profile competition—a potential revenue opportunity for these teams.

Parallel to Australia’s efforts, China has for decades been moving ahead with its sports diplomacy, building stadiums and sports infrastructure globally, with the Pacific and Africa as its focus.

This stadium diplomacy is politically savvy and wins much public praise for China. It has helped to cultivate local political allies and achieve broader objectives, including diplomatic recognition and access to undeveloped natural resources. As Chinese companies build stadiums, they may also establish local bridgeheads for further infrastructure projects.

But China’s stadium diplomacy is transactional, with projects built for major one-off events, such as the Pacific Games, hosted by Solomon Islands in November 2023. For Solomons, China built the new National Stadium in Honiara, as well as a swimming pool, tennis courts and administrative buildings.

China’s stadium diplomacy projects typically come with high maintenance costs and China does little to keep them in use. China is limited in its actual sporting influence, with poorly performing national teams and athletes undermined by doping scandals. But Australia and likeminded countries can use their sporting resources to ensure this infrastructure is put to more use and generates more revenue if they more fully support the region’s sports developments.

While Australia cannot directly compete against China’s construction capacity, it can win in sports diplomacy. Our athletes, teams, organisations and training and support staff are elite. We can offer far more to the sports-loving Pacific and build improved and long-term sports diplomacy connections within our broader regional engagement and development strategy.

Governments and public commentators often decry China’s successful engagement with developing nations across Africa and the Pacific. But it’s time we try something different. Australian sport should better integrate across the Pacific and other regions, alongside international partners, from the highest levels down.