Australia needs to reset its Pacific policy

| June 5, 2018

Australia’s response to reports that China was in talks to build a military base in Vanuatu (reports that were denied by Vanuatu and China) typifies its approach to the region. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull expressed his ‘great concern’, there was a flurry of media commentary, and then the region slipped from the headlines shortly after.

This reflects the pattern of Australia’s ‘securitised’ approach to the South Pacific — its attention generally sharpens only when the region is perceived as a source of threat.

Tellingly, when New Zealand’s Foreign Minister Winston Peters announced his country’s ‘Pacific reset’ in a speech in Sydney, he reminded Australia not to ‘forget’ the South Pacific.

Other powers are also remembering the region: the United Kingdom announced its intention to ‘re-engage’, and French President Emmanuel Macron visited to emphasise French support for the region (although this was more directed at the referendum on New Caledonia’s political future in November).

China has been increasingly active in the South Pacific, and Taiwan is again intensifying its competition for diplomatic influence.

Although Australia claims that it is ‘stepping up’ its engagement with the South Pacific, in substance the 2017 Australian Foreign Policy White Paper provided minimal policy innovation with respect to the region. The Pacific Strategy that was supposed to accompany the White Paper has not eventuated. This is despite the fact that the United States and other partners expect Australia to take a leading role in the region.

Australia seeks to be the region’s ‘principal security partner’ through offering defence, policing and other assistance while ensuring ‘security, stability and cohesion’. Over the last 15 years, Australia has directly intervened in Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and Nauru, has provided ‘state-building’ assistance to strengthen ‘fragile’ state institutions and has increased the conditionality of its development assistance.

Although Australia’s Pacific policy has long emphasised security, South Pacific states themselves pose no direct threat to Australia. No South Pacific state will attack Australia, nor do they have the capability to do so. While there has been small-scale transnational criminal activity, Australia has not faced large flows of people from or through the region.

Any substantial threat to Australia comes from a hostile power beyond the South Pacific establishing a foothold in the region from which it could attack Australia or threaten Australia’s maritime approaches.

There are two main scenarios in which this could happen: a hostile power could forcibly establish itself in one or more South Pacific state (as Japan did in World War II) or it could be invited to base itself there.

Dealing with the first scenario would depend on the specific circumstances. But there is a lot that Australia can do pre-emptively about the second scenario.

Although Australia has often assumed that it is a natural regional leader, South Pacific states have long resisted Australian influence. That resistance has hardened over the last 15 years, coinciding with Australia’s increasingly security-focussed and interventionist approach.

This suggests Australia needs to do more than step-up its engagement with the South Pacific; it needs to reset its approach to the region.

The first element of an Australian ‘South Pacific reset’ should involve actual, not just articulated, respect for the sovereign equality and independence of South Pacific states. While Australia has emphasised the language of partnership and cooperation over the last decade, more needs to be done to put this into practice.

For example, Australian prime ministers should prioritise visiting the region and Australia should send more high-level officials to regional meetings (such as the Pacific Islands Forum Economic Ministers Meeting, which Treasurer Scott Morrison snubbed in April). Reciprocal visits by South Pacific leaders should also be encouraged.

The second element should involve expanding the official and public discourse about the South Pacific beyond security threats to incorporate a more positive portrayal of the region.

There have been some potentially positive recent policy developments (including the Pacific Connect and schools partnership programs) in improving knowledge and understanding of the region as well as improving people-to-people links but there is room to further expand labour and student mobility schemes and to improve visa access to Australia for Pacific islanders.

There must also be more critical reflection on how Australia and its policies are perceived in the Pacific islands region. There is an implicit assumption that South Pacific states gratefully receive Australian assistance and that it buys Australia influence in the region.

If Australia recognises how its past colonial role contributed to many challenges the region faces (such as in the Bougainville region of Papua New Guinea which is scheduled to hold a potentially incendiary referendum on its political future in 2019), this will add nuance to its policy and much-needed humility to its diplomacy.

Australia also needs to recognise how its contemporary behaviour contributes to challenges faced by the South Pacific. For example, while Australia has programs to address the effects of climate change in the region, it should recognise how it contributes to this problem and change both its foreign and domestic policies accordingly.

Similarly, Australia’s attempts to promote economic development do not necessarily improve the lives of many Pacific islanders. The ExxonMobil liquefied natural gas project in Papua New Guinea, which Australia promoted and supported, is said to have left Papua New Guineans worse off.

The most egregious example is Australia’s policy of processing asylum seekers and resettling refugees in the region. This policy has brutalised the populations of Manus Island and Nauru and undermined democracy and the rule of law. It also perpetuates a negative portrayal of the region in the Australian media.

Australia is in many ways its own worst enemy in the South Pacific. If Australia continues its security-focussed approach, its perception that the region is a source of threat could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This piece was published by the East Asia Forum.