A diplomatic spat between Beijing and Canberra has highlighted the Turnbull government’s new assertiveness in the Pacific islands as it pushes back against the growing regional influence of “nontraditional” development partners. Earlier this year, Australia’s Minister for International Cooperation and Pacific Affairs Concetta Fierravanti-Wells made headlines when she criticised Chinese aid projects in the Pacific.
Senator Fierravanti-Wells accused China of “duchessing” Pacific leaders and officials through its aid programme. Criticising “roads to nowhere” built by China, she told The Australian newspaper that: “You’ve got the Pacific full of these useless buildings which nobody maintains, which are basically white elephants.” In response, Chinese diplomats lodged an official diplomatic complaint to Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), calling the Minister’s claims “irresponsible” and “full of ignorance and prejudice.” Fierravanti-Wells’ critique of Chinese loans and aid grants to the Pacific comes as the Turnbull government has ramped up its criticism of growing Chinese political influence in the Asia-Pacific region, including alleged interference in Australian domestic politics.
In recent years under the “new Pacific diplomacy,” Pacific island nations have extended links beyond the ANZUS partners, advancing collective priorities on trade, climate change and the oceans. They’ve made some headway - over the last year, Fiji has served as President of the UN General Assembly, co-chaired the global oceans conference and been appointed to the presidency of the UNFCCC Conference of the Parties (COP23).
Now we’re seeing a renewed Australian assertiveness, as Canberra seeks to retain Australia’s role as the largest aid, trade and military power in the region. At the 2016 Pacific Islands Forum leaders’ meeting in Pohnpei, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull committed to a “step change” in Australia’s engagement with the Pacific. At the 2017 Forum in Apia, Turnbull announced a Pacific Labour Scheme for some smaller island states and efforts to reduce the cost of remittances from Australia to the Pacific.
In November, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop released a major Foreign Policy White Paper, which highlights growing Chinese influence in the Asia-Pacific region and calls for enhanced engagement with the Pacific islands. Shadow Defence Minister Richard Marles from the opposition Australian Labour Party (ALP) – a former Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs – has also called for increased engagement by Australia in the islands region.
Australian policy failures The growing influence of non-traditional players like China, India and Indonesia has in part come from a series of “own goals” by successive Australian governments. There have also been a number of policies from the Coalition and ALP that have arguably damaged Australia’s standing in the region. These include the ongoing commitment to coal exports at a time Pacific governments are seeking reduced use of fossil fuels; the expensive and unresolved warehousing of asylum seekers and refugees on Manus and Nauru; cutbacks to Radio Australia; the closure of AusAID as an independent statutory organisation; and the gutting of the overseas aid programme, slashed to the lowest ratio of national income ever recorded. Over the last two decades, trade policy has been a central pillar of regional engagement.
PACER was first signed in 2001, but years of trade negotiations have ended with the PACER-Plus agreement that the two largest island economies have refused to sign (once a flagship of Australian policy, the treaty isn’t even mentioned in the new White Paper chapter on the Pacific). In global summits, DFAT diplomats often oppose Pacific island policies on loss and damage, greenhouse emission targets or nuclear disarmament.
In response, many innovative policies are being formulated and promoted through institutions where Australia is not in the room, such as the Pacific Small Island Developing States group or sub-regional organisations such as the Melanesian Spearhead Group and Polynesian Leaders Group. Australian government budget cuts have contributed to the hollowing out of institutions that are vital for engagement with the region, from volunteer programmes to Radio Australia and the Bureau of Meteorology.
Australia is also lagging other OECD nations with its climate finance commitments. By 2020, Australian governments must ramp up public climate financing to meet Canberra’s fair share of global targets, requiring a massive increase beyond existing commitments. Since the 2009 Copenhagen summit, Australia’s public climate finance has been drawn completely from the aid budget. At a time when there is widespread debate in Australia about energy security and pricing, there is little if any discussion about where to find new and innovative sources of climate funding. Neither the Coalition nor ALP has said where extra money could come from, at a time that budget papers predict overseas aid will sink to 0.2 per cent of gross national income by 2020. Countries like France and New Zealand are addressing this challenge, through studies on financial transaction taxes, redirecting fossil fuel subsidies, or cracking down on fiscal avoidance in tax havens. Given smaller island states will always need public investment, emerging Asian economies are filling the gap, through institutions like China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).
White paper highlights security
According to the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper, Australia’s approach to the region will focus on “helping to integrate Pacific countries in the Australian and New Zealand economies and our security institutions.” The renewed Australian engagement is often framed as a policy of strategic denial to protect the homeland from an arc of instability. In August 2017, Turnbull and then Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare signed a bilateral security treaty between Australia and the Solomon Islands.
This was followed in September by bilateral MOUs on security partnership with Tuvalu and Nauru. Australia has committed AU$2 billion to the Pacific Maritime Security Programme over the next 30 years, with support to provide 19 replacement patrol boats across the Pacific and an aerial surveillance capability to bolster Pacific island maritime security. The call for security integration was echoed by the ALP’s Richard Marles, in a major speech to the Lowy Institute last November.
The Shadow Defence Minister argued that the first “cornerstone” for renewed Pacific engagement “is a far more extensive and deeper defence relationship with those countries which have a defence force…..it would benefit us to see the capability of the Pacific Island Countries’ defence forces grow.” But whose security are we talking about? During conflicts in Bougainville, Solomon Islands and New Caledonia, churches and NGOs posed alternative perspectives on regional security that didn’t put defence of Australia at the heart of the debate.
They have advocated spending more resources on “human security” rather than “national security” – yet Australian governments prioritise the latter in funding and technical assistance (83 per cent of the $2.6 billion spent on RAMSI went on policing, law and justice programmes, while many Solomon Islanders were calling for greater resources to be allocated to development initiatives that bolster community security, in agriculture, employment and women’s empowerment).
Some Pacific citizens will be anxious about extensive new support for the Papua New Guinea Defence Force or the Republic of Fiji Military Forces, given human rights abuses during the 1990s war on Bougainville and coups in Fiji. As the Forum launches a regional dialogue on a new “Biketawa-Plus” security framework, there will be calls to prioritise support for actors beyond the defence forces.
The Australian Foreign Policy White Paper also dodges the complex and challenging debate around self-determination in Pacific territories administered by France, the United States and New Zealand, as well as in neighbouring countries like Indonesia and Papua Guinea.
There is just one paragraph on Bougainville and no mention of New Caledonia or West Papua. Despite this silence, debates around autonomy or independence will be a central feature of regional politics in coming years. Successive governments in Canberra have already chosen sides in these debates, wary of new nation states being created across Melanesia. But popular support for self-determination will inevitably complicate bilateral relationships with Port Moresby, Jakarta and Paris, as well as Australia’s role in the Pacific Islands Forum.
A central challenge for Australian governments is to resolve this contradiction between global and regional priorities. The White Paper wants to increase “our exports of high-quality coal and LNG” to Asia but also lead the Pacific debate on climate policy.
Australia can’t do both. The 2017 ‘joint statement of enhanced strategic partnership between Australia and France’ highlights the increasing global engagement between Canberra and Paris, and follows the decision to extend full Forum membership to New Caledonia and French Polynesia.
This amplifies the capacity of the French Republic to intervene in this regional security debate, because the French state – and not governments in Noumea or Papeete – controls key legal powers over defence, policing and the military in France’s Pacific dependencies. Despite Australia’s new Pacific assertiveness, it will be increasingly difficult to paper over contested visions for the future.
Within the Forum, fundamental policy differences over climate change, trade and decolonisation will continue to complicate regional relations. There will be new calls to transform the regional architecture, as these differences reinforce the growing sentiment that Australia and New Zealand should play a different role within the Forum.