Both sides now

| August 10, 2023

Two studies, the 2023 Lowy Institute Poll and a 2020 Whitlam Institute report, provide interesting insights on two interrelated issues — how Australians perceive their country’s role in the Pacific, and how Pacific Islanders view Australia in relation to development and diplomacy in the region.


The Lowy poll is a national survey of 2077 Australians, while the Whitlam report includes focus groups and key informant interviews with 150 participants in Fiji, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.

In the Whitlam report, ‘the Pacific’ refers to the region known as the South West Pacific or Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia. The authors acknowledge that the results of the report cannot be generalised across the region, although they provide grounds for informed assumptions and further research. There are also limitations in comparing the two studies’ quantitative and qualitative data, but when examined collectively, they can act as a guideline on views on common issues, in spite of the changing nature of the Australia–Pacific Islands relationship.

Barely a month after the release of the Lowy report in June 2023, there were renewed concerns in Canberra and Washington about Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare’s closeness to Beijing. His trip to the Chinese capital in July 2023 was his second in four years, and his first since a security deal with China upset Australia and the United States. The latest trip culminated with the opening of the Solomon Islands embassy in Beijing, and the signing of nine agreements, to the consternation of Canberra and Washington.

The seesawing nature of the Australia–Pacific relationship is reflected in the Lowy and Whitlam report findings. Nearly half of the Lowy poll respondents believe that relations have not noticeably changed, as opposed to a quarter who see improvements and a lower number who see deterioration. The Whitlam report highlights disenchantment with Australia’s position on climate change, with feelings that Canberra is yet to ‘fully embrace being a member of the Pacific family’.

These sentiments become evident when Pacific Island leaders express their disapproval of Australia. At the 2019 Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) talks on climate change, Tuvalu’s former prime minister Enele Sopoaga accused Canberra of a ‘neo-colonial’ attitude. In Beijing in July 2023, Sogavare told Chinese media that the Pacific is not the backyard of any country, but is comprised of sovereign nations capable of making their own decisions.

Despite leadership-level scuffles, both reports demonstrate that respondents appreciate Australia–Pacific ties. The Lowy poll shows that most Australians value the Pacific relationship, with overwhelming support for aid to fund disaster relief (92 per cent), long-term economic development (83 per cent), COVID-19 vaccines (80 per cent) and climate change action (76 per cent).

Similarly, the Whitlam Institute report indicates that Pacific islanders value the economic, social, cultural and sporting links with Australia. This is synonymous with Australia’s privileged position in the region as the leading aid donor, security partner and PIF member.

China’s growing Pacific footprint looms large on Australian minds and is shaping citizen attitudes — 84 per cent of respondents favour using aid to counter Beijing’s activities in the region. Yet Pacific respondents see increased geostrategic attention as an opportunity to engage with non-traditional partners like China to pursue their development needs.

This view reflects Pacific leaders’ ‘friend to all, enemy to none’ stance — to engage all potential partners on equal terms, while sometimes pitting them against one another for greater leverage in negotiations. In 2022 alone, Pacific leaders hosted the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong to firm up various agreements.

China’s competition with the United States and its uncompromising stance on Taiwan are also weighing on Australian minds. Over 60 per cent of Australians told Lowy they believe that a US–China war over Taiwan is a critical threat. These concerns have nearly doubled compared to 2020 and are apparently fuelled by increased Chinese aggression toward Taiwan.

The prospect of a future conflict seems to have brought Australians closer to the United States — 82 per cent of Lowy’s respondents see the relationship as important for Australia’s security, though this is down 5 per cent from the record high in 2022.

Ironically, Australia and the United States are facing counter-allegations of militarising the region with the Manus Island Naval Base in Papua New Guinea (PNG), which appears to give the US military ‘unrestricted access to the territory of PNG’.

The Lowy poll’s 67 per cent approval for AUKUS could further indicate uneasiness about a US–China conflict, even as analysts observe a ‘limited thaw’ between the adversaries. AUKUS leaders touted the pact as a deterrence against Chinese aggression — half of Australians believe it will make Australia safer.

Some Pacific leaders were initially against AUKUS, alleging a lack of consultation and breaching the non-nuclear proliferation ‘Treaty of Rarotonga’, but were appeased by US assurances that the treaty would be respected.

On climate change, a slim majority (56 per cent) of Australians view global warming as a serious problem needing immediate action, aligning with Pacific sentiments.  The Albanese government took a progressive stance on climate change by declaring a ‘climate emergency’ shortly after taking office in 2022. Pacific leaders have called on Australia to raise its climate ambitions even further if it is to retain its favoured security position in the region.

The delicate nature of Australia–Pacific ties reflects the continuous efforts needed to maintain the relationship, especially with China looming in the background.

This article was published by the East Asia Forum.