Defence diplomacy in the Pacific

| February 1, 2024

Defence diplomacy, the peaceful use of defence resources to pursue foreign and strategic policy objectives, is generally viewed as positively contributing to Australia’s statecraft, especially in the Pacific Islands region.

But although it is gaining prominence in Australian debates, the concept of defence diplomacy is often not well-understood and there is scepticism about its value.

In our recent paper for the Statecraftiness project we assess the nature and effectiveness of Australia’s defence diplomacy in the Pacific Islands region. We analyse: defence cooperation; maritime surveillance and support; people-to-people links; humanitarian and disaster relief; and minilateral and bilateral arrangements.

We find that, while much of Australia’s defence diplomacy is positive, its effectiveness as a tool of statecraft can be increased in the following ways.

As for all statecraft, demonstrating causality between defence diplomacy and outcomes that are favourable to Australia’s strategic interests is challenging. We recommend that Defence consider reviewing its diplomacy efforts to assess how they are received and perceived by Pacific Island countries and how they specifically meet Australia’s strategic interests. This would provide a sound basis on which to design the expansion and improvement of Australia’s efforts.

Future defence diplomacy investments must be made cautiously and strategically. For example, while Defence Minister Richard Marles indicated that Australia is ‘very keen’ to help Solomon Islands establish a defence force, questions over its likely benefit should give Australia pause.

Australia should continue to emphasise partnership and mutual benefit. One of the longstanding strengths of the Defence Cooperation Program and Pacific Maritime Security Programme is that they are designed to meet both Australian and Pacific priorities.

Australia should support greater localisation. For example, closed borders during the early phase of the Covid-19 pandemic meant that most of the frontline humanitarian response in Vanuatu in 2021 and Tonga in 2022 was delivered domestically, with Australia and other partners providing logistical and material support. As a start, Australia should ensure implementation of the Partners in the Blue Pacific’s planned Pacific Humanitarian Warehousing Program that would pre-position humanitarian and emergency supplies to empower local humanitarian responses.

Australia should think more about how to work with other partners in the increasingly ‘crowded and complex’ Pacific Islands region. There is scope to improve cooperation with allies and partners through existing mechanisms such as the FRANZ Arrangement and the Pacific Quad.

Ongoing discussions on maritime cooperation with Japan, South Korea, and Canada are likely to be facilitated by developing mechanisms such as the Partners in the Blue Pacific initiative. However, these cooperative efforts need to be mindful of not sidelining Pacific institutions, particularly the Pacific Islands Forum.

Cooperation with China is going to be less straightforward. But China’s increased presence in the region means that Australia and its partners can’t avoid considering how they’ll work alongside—if not with—China on issues such as humanitarian and disaster relief.

Australia should discourage bilateralism and use its defence diplomacy to emphasise multilateral security efforts that bolster regional institutions and meet Pacific priorities.

There were concerns that the April 2022 China-Solomon Islands security agreement could fracture Pacific regionalism and pave the way for a Chinese military base. While a base is unlikely, particularly as it would be unpopular domestically, the agreement may encourage other partner countries to compete by engaging in ’increased militarisation of the region’.

This concern appears borne out by the 2023 US-PNG defence cooperation agreement. PNG also signed status of forces agreements with the UK in 2023 and France in 2022. American security analysts praised the US agreement as a ‘way for the US military to gain influence on the island and shift military policy to fall more in line with that of the US.’ But its broad scope was described as ‘unbelievable’ by Henry Ivarature, deputy director of strategic engagement at the Australian Pacific Security College, who said that it ‘reads to me as if PNG has sold itself and its sovereignty to the US’. The agreement was met with student protests.

The 2022 Australia-Vanuatu security agreement is also unpopular domestically and was cited as one of the reasons behind the successful August 2023 vote of no-confidence against Prime Minister Ishmael Kalsakau. The new Vanuatu government plans to ‘revisit’ the agreement, which is unlikely to be ratified by Parliament in its current form.

There are also questions about the 2023 Falepili Union. Australia has provided a security guarantee to Tuvalu and gained an effective veto over Tuvalu’s future security and defence engagements, in exchange for a special visa arrangement for Tuvalu citizens to Australia. The treaty was signed without widespread public consultation. There are concerns that its benefit to Tuvalu may be limited by the difficulties Tuvaluans face migrating to Australia and its failure to require Australia to commit to greater emissions reductions, given that climate change is Tuvalu’s greatest security threat. There are also questions about practical difficulties of Australia responding to external aggression against Tuvalu.

Questions about practicalities also arise with respect to the 2023 Australia-PNG security agreement. While the immediate priority under the agreement is police cooperation, either party may ‘request assistance… on a security-related matter or threat’. Patrick Kaiku, a teaching fellow in the political science department at the University of Papua New Guinea and Faith Hope Boie, an undergraduate student at the university, observe that the agreement covers ‘wider security issues far in excess of those covered by the US agreement’. This represents a welcome vote of confidence, but it also poses risks to Australia, which lacks the capacity to substantively respond to any widespread outbreak of conflict in PNG.

Indeed, recent reports that PNG is in talks with China about a potential security and policing agreement highlight the difficulty of individual partners meeting PNG’s security assistance needs. Rather than encouraging bilateralism, Australia’s defence diplomacy should advance an approach that bolsters cooperation and capacity to respond to security challenges under the auspices of regional institutions such as the Pacific Islands Forum. Regional approaches would generate fewer domestic consequences, better spread responsibility, create a deeper pool of capacity, and potentially take the heat out of partner competition and militarisation.