This is part of a foreign policy election series looking at how Australia’s relations with the world have changed since the Morrison government came to power. You can read the first piece in the series here.
Successive Australian governments have lined up over recent decades to emphasise the importance of the Pacific region to Australian interests. While there are some differences in emphasis between the two major parties’ approach to the Pacific, we can expect considerable continuity in Australia’s approach to the region if there is a change of government in May.
Regional capitals will be early destinations for newly-elected ministers. The Pacific will remain the main focus of the Australian aid program, and the Australian Defence Force will continue to provide humanitarian support following natural disasters, as it has for decades. Economic integration with the region will remain a priority, as will labour market access.
But the stakes rose significantly for Australia last month, when a leaked draft security agreement between China and Solomon Islands confirmed Beijing’s intention to deploy military and police to the country, and to secure a potential supply base there for its warships.
Both sides of politics consider this to be an unwelcome development for Australian national security. It also highlights that a “business as usual” Australian approach to the Pacific is no longer enough.
Coalition’s record in the region
The Coalition points to the Pacific Step-up program, first announced by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in 2016, to illustrate how seriously it takes the region. As part of this, Australia has sustained its major aid effort in the Pacific, while pivoting over the past two years to respond to the challenges of COVID-19.
The government’s commitment also takes in a significant new infrastructure financing initiative. This invests in upgrades to Fiji’s airport and a new undersea internet cable between the Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati and Nauru.
A long history of bipartisan agreement
As the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade acknowledges, the Pacific Step-up actually builds on over half a century of “sustained engagement” in the Pacific.
This bipartisan history takes in Labor government initiatives such as the 2008 Port Moresby Declaration, a landmark Australian commitment to work with Pacific nations on economic development and climate change. It also includes the resulting Pacific Islands Partnerships for Development, aimed at improving health, education and employment outcomes in the region.
Since 2013, we have seen fresh determination in Canberra to counter Chinese strategic inroads in the region, as well.
These initiatives include the Coral Sea cable, which provides secure telecommunications to PNG and Solomon Islands, and Telstra’s government-backed investment in regional telecom company Digicel. While these are aimed at improving regional infrastructure, they are also clearly designed to deny Chinese firms such as Huawei access to the sensitive regional telecommunications sector.
If these have been tactical wins for the current Australian government, China’s deal with Solomon Islands is undoubtedly a setback. It has prompted serious concern in Washington and other capitals.
Responding to China will require a collaborative response that draws on the voices of the Pacific Island nations that share Australia’s concerns. There are serious hazards for fragile Pacific nations in Beijing’s hunger for resources, its growing military engagement across the region and the scale of its lending patterns.
Australia will also need to work harder to avoid the impression that its focus on the region has been motivated only by an impulse to counter China’s reach.
New focus on regional security threats
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has won praise from some for his personal tone and language when engaging with regional audiences. This includes positioning Australia as a proud member of the Pacific “family”.
But his foreign policy address to the Lowy Institute in March struck a different tone. The prime minister depicted Australia’s neighbourhood as a geo-strategic theatre brimming with threats, rather than a place of collaboration or opportunity. He was speaking to a domestic audience against the backdrop of Russia’s war in Ukraine, but they will have been listening in the Pacific, too.
Last year, several Pacific leaders and senior community representatives expressed real disquiet in the aftermath of the AUKUS announcement about what they saw as a disrespectful lack of forewarning and the impact of growing strategic competition on a vulnerable region.
Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama told the UN General Assembly that Australia and its AUKUS partners should shift their focus to what the Pacific sees as the highest priority.
If we can spend trillions on missiles, drones, and nuclear submarines, we can fund climate action.
Opportunities for Labor
This is where a Labor government would have a significant opportunity to differentiate itself in the eyes of the region.
Pacific countries have consistently made it clear they see climate change as an overriding, existential challenge. The current government’s measures to support climate change resilience and renewable energy projects have generally been been drowned out by an entrenched regional belief that Australia has been a laggard on this issue.
Labor has signalled it will respond seriously to this concern. In his own address to the Lowy Institute in March, Opposition leader Anthony Albanese said he would elevate climate change to a national security issue. He also highlighted Labor’s intention to join Pacific countries in hosting a special regional climate conference.
Simply holding a conference like this would undoubtedly have a positive symbolic impact across the region and help reset Australia’s global climate credentials.
Foreign Affairs Shadow Minister Penny Wong has also said Labor would draw more strategically on Australia’s multicultural strengths, including its Indigenous cultures, to improve engagement with the Pacific.
While DFAT has done solid work in developing an Indigenous diplomacy agenda, it has yet to be folded into the foreign policy mainstream or applied deliberately in dealings with the region. These kinds of soft diplomacy strategies should not be underestimated for their symbolic importance.
Major challenges ahead
There is little sign the strategic competition in the region will lessen over the coming Australian term of government. And the Pacific Island nations will quickly throw up challenges to whoever is in power after the election.
COVID also remains a pressing issue in the region. But Australia will need to lift its strategic gaze beyond the immediate health concerns to build partnerships to address the pandemic’s longer-term impact on Pacific societies. This is especially true in the education sector, where COVID has reversed decades of hard-won gains and removed millions of children – especially girls – from school.
Whoever wins in May, flexibility and a genuine commitment to partnership with the Pacific family will be the key factors in success.