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  • Writer's pictureJames Cox

Australia and the Pacific: engagement and leadership

Australian PM Turnbull & PNG PM O'Neill at the 2017 Pacific Islands Forum. Same shirt, different directions. Image AAP/Lukas Coch/via REUTERS

Australian PM Turnbull & PNG PM O'Neill at the 2017 Pacific Islands Forum. Same shirt, different directions. Image: AAP/Lukas Coch/via REUTERS

It is probably reasonable to suggest that if the Australian Foreign Policy White Paper was being released next week, rather than last year, it would give rather more weight to the South Pacific than it did. The Pacific was discussed briefly in chapter 7 of 8, and in language that suggested that Pacific Island States, rather than being our near neighbours, were looked on mostly as places with problems that Australia could help with.

Times have changed. A few weeks ago news outlets reported a rumour that a Chinese base was to be built in Vanuatu. Since then Australia appears to have rediscovered the Pacific region. Flight schedules were checked and it was realised that Vanuatu and its neighbours are only four hours away. The news has since been full of reports of Chinese investment across the Pacific, and especially in our Melanesian neighbours: China is building airstrips, wharves, conference centres and more. The Chinese bases story has faded, but its legacy remains.

Nous sommes ici! Image from

Earlier this week, Malcolm Turnbull and France's President Macron announced closer military and strategic ties with a square focus on the Indo-Pacific region - where Australia lives, and where France has a deep and continuing colonial history. Both leaders emphasised the importance of the rules based order in the region and the need to avoid dominance by any one power. Mr Turnbull said "that's what we're committed to and that's vital for all of us — for every country, the big fish, the little fish and the shrimps, for it to be maintained." Hearing this, a Pacific Island state might bridle at the assumption by colonial powers of the right to protect the region - and of being described as a shrimp!

This was followed on 3 May by a speech by Shadow Minister for Defence Richard Marles to the US-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies, in which he argued that Australian leadership in the Pacific could shape our engagement with the wider world, but that we are failing in this. Mr Marles observed that despite our very large diplomatic presence in the region, Australia is failing to take up its leadership role due to "a lack [of] intent which comes from a failure to understand how the Pacific sits within Australia’s world view." He suggested:

Ultimately the cry for Australian leadership comes most loudly from the Pacific itself. It is a region faced with huge challenges. Small populations in geographically isolated locations makes the task of establishing viable economies imposing. Government service delivery is equally as difficult. Development is proceeding very slowly and on current trends the Pacific will be the least developed part of the world by the late 2020s. On top of this are the effects of climate change, which for a number of these countries poses an existential threat within the lifetime of the current political leadership.

This is a good analysis, but like the White Paper it describes the Pacific only as a place with problems. Mr Marles frames the Pacific in an Australian world view - but fails to consider what the Pacific's own world view might be.

In both the Government and Opposition Australia's natural leadership role in the Pacific is assumed. But should it be? Australia is the largest country in the Pacific, but what are our ties to the French colonies, or to the US-aligned Micronesian states? Have we earned the mantle of leadership in our Melanesian heartland? In some instances we have: The Solomon Islands looked for Australian leadership in RAMSI, and we shouldered that responsibility.

But it is laughable that Australia would be seen by our Pacific neighbours as being able to lead on climate change. The Pacific Islands have been the world leaders in climate change for years, while Australia has been burning coal and drowning in politics. The best we can hope for is to listen, learn and catch up. Australian climate leadership in the Pacific may come, but we have to earn it.

More generally it is useful to consider what a Pacific Islander world view might be. As independent states for centuries they navigated their own waters - both literally and metaphorically. Years as colonies are progressively giving way to their reclamation of this independence, and for many in the region, it is recompense and not leadership they want from us. Today, they are once again forging their own path and working with whoever has what they may need. China offers infrastructure to assist their economic growth and so they are taking it.

Australia needs to look again at what it is that we offer, and what the Pacific states want. They may indeed welcome Australia as a partner and neighbour, and sometimes look to us for leadership, but we cannot assume that they need it, or even that they want it. If Australia wants to lead the Pacific States, we have to be a Pacific State. We have to engage wholeheartedly and then - sometimes - we will lead.

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