The Pacific step-up turns four

| September 10, 2020

On Wednesday, Australia’s South Pacific ‘step-up’ reached its fourth birthday as an ambitious work in progress.

History and geography command commitment. Commitment generates cash. Cash is as vital as vision because neighbourhood needs press. Strategy begets kit and defence engagement. And the new bit galvanising Canberra: China challenges Australia’s traditional place as the pre-eminent South Pacific power.

The step-up was born on 9 September 2016 at the 47th Pacific Islands Forum, in Micronesia, when Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced a ‘step-change’ in relations with the islands.

Political language depicts, defines and directs, and much of Canberra didn’t like the ‘change’ part of Turnbull’s step-change. Change suggests a break with the past or even past failure.

Rather than change, we’d do more of what we’d been doing and do it better. Turnbull’s step-change was christened the ‘step-up’. New Zealand soon joined  with a South Pacific ‘reset’.

The origin story from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade emphasises continuity, not change. Since decolonisation, DFAT says, Australia has had ‘over half a century of sustained engagement, responding to the region’s priorities’, because of our ‘abiding interest in the sovereignty, stability, security and prosperity of our region’.

The policy rests on those two legs: the South Pacific’s needs and Australia’s abiding interests. We act not just because we should but because we must.

In his memoir, Turnbull muses: ‘Australian leaders have often called the Pacific “our backyard”. That’s not the right term: it suggests we own it and take it for granted. The Pacific rather is our neighbourhood, and while vast, it’s one in which we have special responsibilities and opportunities.’

The step-up was a key objective of the 2017 foreign affairs white paper. Launching the document, Turnbull talked of ‘an irreversible and permanent step-up in our commitment’ to the South Pacific.

When Scott Morrison took over as prime minister, he embraced ‘a new chapter in relations with our Pacific family’ in a speech to troops at Queensland’s Lavarack Barracks in November 2018: ‘This is our patch. This is our part of the world. This is where we have special responsibilities. We always have, we always will. We have their back, and they have ours. We are more than partners by choice. We are connected as members of a Pacific family.’

Some distrust the emotion and ambition of Morrison’s ‘Pacific family’. I reckon it’s goddamn genius, not least because family reflects his life and faith.

Through their church, Morrison’s family has made many trips to the South Pacific. Personal experience of normal Pacific life makes Australia’s 30th prime minister somewhat unique, as a fine Oz scribe, Mary-Louise O’Callaghan, explains: ‘Morrison is likely the first prime minister since Federation to bring to the office such personal insight and real affinity for our island neighbours. When Scott Morrison speaks of the Pacific being family he actually means it.’

Turnbull and Morrison offer versions of the step-up as an expression of Australia’s interests, influence and values. Turnbull does traditional duty by pointing to opportunities and responsibilities. Morrison accepts that strategic base, then reaches to shared beliefs—the conversation must be more than transactional.

The step-up has bipartisan consensus. Labor claims continuity by pointing to the Rudd government’s ‘new era of cooperation’, the Port Moresby declaration and the Pacific partnerships for development.

Invoking family and history is part answer to island cynicism that the step-up is just Canberra panicking about China—although the China panic has concentrated minds wonderfully in many dimensions of Oz policy.

A panicked Canberra pushed Beijing aside to build a fibre-optic cable from Honiara to Sydney, and then committed to build a similar cable network around Papua New Guinea.

Australia wanted to ensure, Turnbull writes, ‘that critical communications infrastructure didn’t fall under the control of China or any other country whose interests may not always be aligned with our own, let alone the values of Pacific island nations’.

There’s much else Australia doesn’t want to fall under China’s sway.

Responses range from the creation of the Office of the Pacific to the $2 billion infrastructure facility for the South Pacific and Timor-Leste.

The 2020 defence strategic update mentions the ‘step-up’ seven times (the same number of times it names China). The step-up aligns with the update’s stress on Australia shaping its strategic environment: ‘Australia must be an active and assertive advocate for stability, security and sovereignty in our immediate region.’

Kevin Rudd says the coalition under Tony Abbott, and then Turnbull and Morrison, ‘opened the door’ to Chinese influence in the South Pacific by slashing aid and retreating on climate change action.

Australia’s international aid budget has, indeed, suffered what the Lowy Institute’s Jonathon Pryke calls a ‘dramatic contraction’. Stephen Howes of the Australian National University dubs our aid policy ‘incoherent’ and points to an ‘unprecedented divergence’ between spending on defence and aid.

Canberra hasn’t quite lost sight of the truth—best deployed against hard heads and cynical ‘realists’—that aid is the soft end of the defence budget.

South Pacific aid was quarantined by not being savaged. Australia can still proclaim itself the top aid partner in the islands. The dollar figure for the islands trends up: $1.1 billion in 2017–18, $1.3 billion in 2018–19, $1.4 billion in 2019–20.

On origins and parentage on this fourth anniversary, note the claim by the ebullient former defence minister Christopher Pyne: ‘I created the Pacific Step-up to support Australia’s strategic position in the South Pacific.’

Pyne says the comprehensive policy is more than any other country has committed to the region. He offers this conclusion about what’s changed in Canberra’s mindset on the islands: ‘The days where Australian government policy appeared to rely on the adage “let virtue be its own reward” were over. We were stepping up and stepping out!’

Using the success-has-many-fathers measure, Canberra thinks and hopes and trusts and prays that the step-up is working. Happy birthday!

This article was published by The Strategist.

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