Australia in the Pacific: what are we stepping up to?
Updated: May 28, 2019
It’s an intriguing time in relations between the Australian government and its Pacific counterparts. Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison is starting his first full term by asserting that the Pacific step-up, initiated late in 2018, remains at the centre of his government’s foreign policy. He wants to show that for his government the Pacific island states are more than merely the space between Asia and North America in Australia’s ‘Indo-Pacific’. Aspects of the step-up were foreshadowed in the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper, but Mr Morrison’s approach represents a clear break with the past. It may be symbolic of this break that the three stewards of the White Paper – Malcolm Turnbull, Julie Bishop and Steve Ciobo – are no longer in parliament.
Investment in stronger Australia-Pacific relations is welcome, however the underlying motivations for the step-up and the ensuing choices are not being universally accepted. China’s rise was certainly its catalyst, but what happens next will be hugely important in how it is perceived and received. Labor’s Senator Penny Wong recently observed that narratives and perceptions matter in foreign policy and this will be tested as people across the region and in Australia watch this story unfold, and react accordingly. Will the step-up mark the birth of a dynamic and multi-layered relationship or be dominated by the projection of Australia’s self-interest?
The choices being made now will have impacts from the grassroots to the parliaments across the region. In an ideal world they will have similar reverberations in Australia too – an invigorated regional relationship should impact us all. We have the opportunity to nurture and join an inclusive and peaceful Pacific society.
The present moment offers us an opportunity to set a baseline against which to track the effects the step-up. So here is a quick survey of the good and the questionable in this final week of May 2019.
The new government has a head-start in its Pacific relationships, having started to step-up late last year. Several senior political, bureaucratic and military visits have been made since then and a suite of initiatives have been announced. Mr Morrison himself visited Fiji last January. Pacific island leaders have noticed; and they approve.
International Development and the Pacific returns to a full ministerial portfolio with the appointment of Alex Hawke to the role. Mr Hawke is reportedly close to the Prime Minister, adding to the significance of the appointment.
Mr Morrison’s first overseas visit post-election is to the Solomon Islands, ‘en route’ to London. It’s a significant gesture to make such a detour, and meeting the re-elected PM Sogavare early in his term and on his turf can help to cement Mr Sogavare’s authority. Foreign Minister Marise Payne said on Radio National this morning (27 May): “In visiting there, what Prime Minister Morrison is doing is reinforcing the strength of our step-up, is reinforcing that close collaboration we developed during the RAMSI period and most importantly saying to our family in the Pacific, our neighbours in the Pacific this is where Australia lives and this is what is important to us.”
The government’s rationale for the Pacific step-up was also redefined by Senator Payne today. She obliquely acknowledged China’s influence on Australia’s Pacific policy but chose to emphasise other things: “We’ve always said that the establishment of facilities of that nature [military bases] by other parties… would change and affect Australia’s strategic outlook, but that is not the focus of our Pacific Step-up. If you look across the comprehensive program which we have established as part of the step-up you will see it goes to people to people links, it goes to education. It goes to infrastructure development. It goes to church to church relationships. It goes to Pacific labour mobility which is so important for delivering economic growth to our Pacific island neighbours. So it’s much broader than that.”
These developments could be a strong foundation, but there are some significant obstacles to be overcome if the government is to succeed in building a strong relationship. The first and most fundamental question asked by Pacific islanders when they look at Australia is this: where is our action on climate change? The leaders of Fiji, Samoa and the Pacific Islands Forum itself have put Australia on notice on this issue, yet it was notably absent from Senator Payne’s description of the step-up today. The Forum’s Boe Declaration on Regional Security, to which Australia is a signatory, says that climate, not China, is the greatest threat to the region’s peace and security. Yet what the region sees from Australia is nothing.
Secondly, regardless of intent, observers are inferring from recent appointments and statements that military and security concerns will disproportionately shape the relationship. This shows most obviously in Minister Hawke’s other portfolio responsibility as Assistant Defence Minister. Mr Morrison's Solomon Islands tour is being viewed as a challenge to Chinese influence, offering a different narrative to that presented by Senator Payne. Meanwhile Senator Payne’s background as former Defence Minister is apparent in another of her statements from today’s ABC interview, recognising the “Australian military and police members who were part of [RAMSI]” but not the many other bureaucrats and other assorted aid workers who were part of that effort, nor even the Australian businesses who are working today in Honiara’s challenging environment.
Finally, perhaps the most amorphous question is one that is of most concern to us at Peacifica: the question of dialogue, how it happens and who participates. The way in which the Australian government enters into dialogue in the region – and how it facilitates the emergence of dialogues at all levels of society – is fundamental to the shape of our future relationships. The fatal flaw of the Pacific step-up is that it is unilateral. Mr Morrison decided that we needed to do more, and so that is what we are doing. Influential Australians are fanning out across the Pacific. Preferential visas for business-people and athletes are being arranged. This is all welcome, but the traffic is mostly one way, and mostly confined to elites.
The rapid expansion of the Pacific labour mobility scheme is perhaps the most significant counter to this, as Australia offers up a currency of genuine value to Pacific islanders and does so in a way that opens us up to them. But there is so much more that can be done. Allowing ourselves to be invited into Pacific spaces and ways of talking and listening; and inviting Pacific people into our own will profoundly affect what we choose to do together. We will also need to include the Pacific diaspora communities already resident in Australia, groups who quietly and essentially contribute to our economic well-being, but who often fly under our radar.
As we Australians go about our own lives, changes like this that create opportunities for us to talk with, listen to and better understand our nearest neighbours will transform and strengthen us all.