Australia and its Region

Australia–Fiji defence cooperation can be ‘win-win’

Fijian Army Private Qiri desembarked from Lighter Amphibious Resupply Cargo (LARC) at Canala Bay

In a recent op-ed I suggested that as we’re now normalising our relations with Fiji we shouldn’t just go back to the ‘same old, same old’ when it comes to defence cooperation.

The great advantage of military relationship-building is that much of it can be done without attracting too much political attention. The new Commander of Republic of Fiji Military Forces (RFMF) is a graduate of the Australian Defence Force Staff College, and he’ll likely be receptive to engagement with his Australian counterparts. Early resumption of places for Fijian officers at our training establishments, along with participation in joint exercises should be part of a normal Fiji–Australia relationship.

But I also suggested that one new idea we might consider would be ADF training courses in Fiji or Australia to prepare young Fijians to be, at the same time, Australian permanent residents and ADF recruits: after they’d performed sufficient loyal service, this would lead to Australian citizenship. Fiji would benefit from the remittances. Alternatively, if there were concerns we were ‘cherry- picking’ the best and brightest, they could go back under a return-of-service obligation and strengthen the RFMF (Fiji now allows dual citizenship). Read more

The rule now is that you have to be an Australian citizen before you can enlist, or—in certain circumstances for ‘high priority’ jobs—you can be a permanent resident nearing citizenship and your application can be fast-tracked. Most of our overseas military recruits and lateral transfers come from the UK, US, NZ and Canada.

We should be taking a closer look at the UK model of Commonwealth recruiting to see the justifications and modalities, and get away from any notion that this would be some kind of ‘guest worker’ scheme: Fijians serving in the UK armed forces aren’t called ‘guest workers’.

The UK’s Commonwealth recruitment scheme advertises vacancies in the relevant country, interviews in those states, and selection is based on skills.

Certainly equal conditions with Australian personnel would be essential, (as in the UK model). They’d not be in separate units and nor should navy and air force personnel be excluded.

Currently there’s no evidence that the ADF’s facing massive recruiting shortfalls. (The applicant-assessment-enlistment ratio’s around 10:3:1—that is ten applicants test for three to be assessed for one to enlist.) So the idea of incorporating Fijians into the ADF is an idea that can and should receive careful preparation to ensure its success.

Still, it shouldn’t be that hard to find a winning formula here. Fijians and Australians have a long history of getting along with each other through tourism, sport, education, and commerce. Moreover, Fijian military cooperation with Australia has a long and positive history.

If it was successful, such a scheme might be extended by bilateral agreement to other island states. But I’d guess that the overwhelming majority of recruitment would come from Fiji: the country’s long exported security personnel and Fijian expertise is highly-regarded in UN peacekeeping missions (Fiji’s now got over 500 troops in UNDOF’s delicate mission in the Golan). For every RFMF vacancy advertised in Fiji, there’s a huge response from would-be recruits.

If properly instituted the proposed scheme may well prove to be a positive strand in the ties that bind Australia and Fiji.

Anthony Bergin is deputy director of ASPI. Image courtesy of Department of Defence.

Boats to patrol the Pacific

Karl PPB

Calls to fast-track the construction of new patrol boats to replace Navy’s hard-working but troubled Armidales, partly to help forestall the valley of death facing the nation’s naval shipyards, occur amid continuing debate over the cases for and against paying a premium to produce advanced vessels in Australia. Make-work programs to preserve ship-building job and skills are particularly controversial.

Given the complexity of the arguments now swirling over whether to replace the Armidales early (the youngest is barely six years old) it’s nice to be able to point to a naval manufacturing opportunity that’s warranted on strategic grounds alone, irrespective of any industrial or other benefits: Canberra should move to implement the Pacific Maritime Security Program. The PMSP is due to start replacing up to 22 old Pacific Class Patrol Boats (PPBs) in 12 countries from 2018 but isn’t funded in the forward estimates. Read more

On the surface, the prospect of gifting boats to replace vessels that haven’t always been well-used might appear extravagant with the Defence budget so tight. Current PPB performance varies greatly across the fleet but problems have included non-security related tasking (such as for VIP transport), some rough-handling including periodic runnings-aground, erratic routine maintenance, and disappointing rates of effort. By 2011, the PPBs were achieving 66 sea-days per boat per year, up from just 36 in 2008, but far fewer than the over 200 for the RAN’s patrol boats (which have two crews). PMSP wouldn’t be inexpensive either. Shadow Assistant Defence Minister David Feeney—an enthusiast—estimates 20 or so steel-hulled boats purpose-built in Australia for regional conditions would cost just under $300 million to deliver. Total costs could reach $1.5 billion over 35 years.

Yet the PMSP isn’t just ‘defence aid’. It’s more accurately viewed as a form of forward-defence and regional conflict prevention, which will be good for regional countries but also profoundly in our own national interest. Although far from cheap, it represents a cost-effective investment in being able to help shape, rather than merely react to, regional events.

For Australia, PMSP will preserve regional capabilities to police a vast area we’d otherwise have to look after ourselves. Working with local militaries, police maritime elements, and customs services to support their effective self-help is preferable to us asking (or being called upon) to act in other peoples’ jurisdictions. Supported by a small network of posted RAN personnel, PMSP will also promote a continuing welcome for the ADF’s, low-key but visible, enduring strategic presence across our maritime approaches. Familiar and valued cooperation delivers both direct benefits—such as extra reach for our search and rescue efforts or deterring drug-smuggling aimed at Australian markets—and indirect value, such as situational awareness, influence, and opportunities to engage traditional regional partners—the US, France and NZ. It may also moderate any adventurism by actors from outside the region, whether ascendant powers, marginalised states, or investors.

For participating countries, PMSP will modernise cooperative efforts to protect marine resources, enforce sovereignty, and counter transnational crime. The program should include enhanced surveillance, coordination, and technical-legal collaboration to make the most of the new boats. The absence of a follow-on to PPB would heighten vulnerability to socio-economic sources of instability. Fishing is critical to regional countries, but they are hard-pressed to protect their resources, having mostly small populations and large EEZs. Illegal fishing already plunders a billion dollars from regional coffers each year. And economic pressures could contribute to the need for lengthy, costly and risky stabilisation missions.

PMSP could also be progressed without a large one-off spend. Introducing a couple of boats per year as the current PPBs reach their maximum extendable lives from 2018 to 2027 would spread acquisition costs. Enhanced aerial surveillance and other potentially expensive components of PMSP could also be added gradually as economic circumstances and operational tempo permit.  Cheaper, potentially suitable, foreign patrol boat designs are available, though with some symbolic and practical downsides. NZ could chip in (it already provides PPB personnel) given its Cook Islands and wider responsibilities. And wealthier recipients may value PMSP more if they make a contribution in return for some say in capability specifications. A proportion of costs for non-military vessels might be deemed aid-eligible for non-strategic tasks such as food security. Hand-me-down Armidales would be prized for their sleek lines—they aren’t your grandfather’s PT boat—and might fill a short term gap, but could also be uneconomical and unsustainable over the longer term.

Whatever option Government chooses, PMSP deserves some numbers against it in next month’s budget alongside the much larger figures for grander investments in our maritime security.

Karl Claxton is an analyst at ASPI. Map (c) ASPI 2014.

Police cooperation can help restart the relationship

Indonesia's police

While the political relationship between Australia and Indonesia is going through a tough time, the close relationship between their two police forces continues. That’s good for Australia and Indonesia because this relationship supports both countries’ national interests in promoting the rule of law and practical cooperation against crime and terrorism.

As our recently released report, ‘A return on investment: the future of police cooperation between Australia and Indonesia’, explains, the relationship between the Australian Federal Police and Indonesian National Police (POLRI) would benefit from some new thinking. That’s because their relationship is at an inflection point: in addition to the freeze in cooperation on cyber crime and people smuggling caused by the current rift, a number of joint initiatives have either matured (and require revision) or are becoming less relevant. Some others—like people smuggling—mightn’t be as relevant in the future either. The rift might have also created a trust deficit in intelligence sharing and the cyberdomain.

The close police relationship can help Australia and Indonesia navigate their way to the ‘new normal’—a new state of bilateral relations that the foreign ministers are in the process of negotiating. Both countries can leverage the past achievements and current, low-key collaboration of the two police forces in some new ways. This will also help shift the focus onto less politically-charged issues like cooperation on transnational crime. Read more

One golden opportunity to mark the success of this relationship will be upon us soon. July 2014 marks the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the highly-successful Jakarta Centre for Law Enforcement Cooperation (JCLEC). This small school located in Central Java has seen over 15,000 law enforcement officers attend over 600 training activities in the last decade. It’s also bought a number of regional police force officers to Indonesia to discuss common threats like terrorism, people smuggling and organised crime. It’s been an outstanding success that should be marked, and used to promote the clear benefits of Australia–Indonesia cooperation.

Another opportunity might be to address absent parts of the bilateral cooperation. Currently, there’s no counterpart meeting for Australia’s Justice Minister, who’s responsible for the AFP. This is partly because the Indonesian system is differs to Australia’s, with the POLRI Chief reporting straight to the President. Still, a broad-membership forum focused on law enforcement could bring ministers and officials together to discuss cooperation and future capacity building projects. Its broad membership could also encourage a whole of government perspective among Indonesian law enforcers.

The Australian government could also request the Indonesian government to provide some policing experts for the G20 conference in November 2014. This conference will require Australia’s police forces to pool much of their specialist capabilities for a short period, and to hold more on stand-by in case of an incident. It’s a good time to recoup some of the investment Australia’s made in POLRI over the last decade by inviting some of their specialists to work in Canberra during this time. It’s also a great way to demonstrate the partnership between Australia and Indonesia, which are both G20 states.

Turning to medium-term opportunities, the next Commonwealth budget needs to restore the Law Enforcement Development Program (LEDP). This program provides the AFP with an ability to fund small cooperation projects with its partners, such as training courses, visits and gifts of equipment. In effect, the LEDP allows the AFP to respond quickly to new opportunities as they emerge. This level of flexibility will be needed as the ‘new normal’ for the bilateral relationship won’t emerge for some time yet, unless political conditions change for the better.

Beyond that, it’s also time to think about the longer-term police-to-police relationship. This will be important because an increasingly wealthy Indonesia, and increased links between the two countries, will likely be accompanied by an increase in transnational crime. Both forces should be thinking about how the investment of the last decade can be leveraged for mutual benefit. Building stronger people-to-people links through a police alumni organisation and new capability initiatives against cybercrime will help.

Finally, both forces could do more to spread the focus of cooperation beyond Indonesia by encouraging more activities in Australia and in the broader Southeast Asian region. This should include some long-term attachments for POLRI officers in Australia.

There’s also a great opportunity for the AFP and POLRI to work together in Myanmar, where its police force is emerging from military control and is in need of professional training. Such cooperation would promote both Australia and Indonesia’s interests in promoting democracy and change in Myanmar, and provide a tangible demonstration of the benefits of international police cooperation.

David Connery and Natalie Sambhi are analysts at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Michael McKenzie is a PhD scholar at the Australian National University. Their report, ‘A return on investment: the future of police cooperation between Australia and Indonesia’ was published by ASPI and is available for download here. Image courtesy of Flickr user Luther Bailey.

Mr Abbott goes to Port Moresby—what to expect?

Lieutenant Aaron Swanson from A Company, 2nd Royal Australian Regiment speaks with Colonel Mark Goina Chief of Personnel, PNG Defence Force and Lieutenant Colonel Vince Gabina, Commanding Officer of 2nd Battalion Royal Pacific Island Regiment, PNGDF in Wewak, PNG during Exercise Olgeta Warrior.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s visit to Papua New Guinea will occur at a complex time in a complex relationship with a complex neighbour.

Although warnings that forecasting is a ‘mug’s game for strategists’ are doubly ominous in ‘the land of the unexpected’, Abbott’s scheduled to arrive in Port Moresby this evening, so I’ll recklessly hazard a few observations, some predictions, and even make a suggestion or two.

The idea that PNG is at a ‘crossroads’ has been applied to various issues at several points over the years—most memorably by David Hegarty in 1989 as the Bougainville crisis escalated, economic woes deepened, and the still fairly upbeat ‘post-colonial twilight’ faded into the past. PNG has experienced resource booms every decade from the 1970s on, but it’s still hard to think of another era when the country has simultaneously stood tantalisingly close to really taking-off but also to taking a nasty fall. While there’s probably some life yet in another old trope, that ‘PNG will always muddle through’, the current situation seems more a case of ‘crash-through-or-crash’ than just bumbling along. Read more

So why do Port Moresby’s prospects appear at once so promising and fragile? And given our stake in a stable, prosperous, confident and active PNG, how might Mr Abbott help it soar rather than stumble?

Let’s start with Prime Minister Peter O’Neill, whose own position partly mirrors PNG’s. He retains a seemingly unassailable 100 or so of the 111 seats in Parliament and has a year left to run of his 30-month freedom from votes-of-no-confidence. He easily accomplished a recent muscle-flexing exercise by sacking the heads of major parties in his governing coalition; his talented and ambitious Treasurer and his hitherto powerful Petroleum Minister. The immediate catalyst for the dismissals were quarrels over a billion dollar loan to reacquire PNG’s stake in resource bonds previously hocked to purchase equity in another resource project. This episode raises concerns that O’Neill may be making double-or-nothing wagers against future national revenue that will pay-off handsomely if events fall his way but leave PNG highly exposed if things unfold badly. The show of strength in sacking both ministers also suggests he feels the sharks are starting to circle.

PNG’s economic outlook actually appears pretty positive, but again there are causes for concern. ExxonMobil’s $19 billion LNG project is a case in point. It’s several months ahead of schedule, and should start supplying gas to Asia by midyear. This’ll provide modest revenue to Port Moresby shortly thereafter and very substantial income a few years from now. The plant has substantial expansion capacity and major international firms are seriously pursuing other large gas projects. But at the same time, a combination of low global commodity prices, natural events, and fears that economic nationalism and sovereign risk is re-emerging (notwithstanding widespread acceptance that the nationalisation of Ok Tedi mine was a special case) have led to weaker mineral exploration and a large revenue shortfall.

The situation for PNG’s seven million citizens has bright spots. A decade of strong economic growth has allowed the Government to start implementing free education and health policies, but these are huge, difficult and expensive initiatives. Inequality is high and growing, as prices rise and rapid population growth exacerbates social pressures in urban and rural areas. In 2011, 40% of Papua New Guineans were judged to be poor. PNG won’t meet any of (and is actually going backwards against) its millennium development goals. And high levels of violence continue to impede economic growth and blight lives, especially for women.

So where does Australia fit in? The Abbott and O’Neill Governments’ instincts are similar on channelling Australian aid toward PNG priorities for building societal and governance as well as physical infrastructure to boost the economy. But while most would agree that preventing poverty is better than alleviating it, Port Moresby will need some help meeting sovereign responsibilities to deliver health, education and other vital services, and to assist the most disadvantaged, in addition to aid-for-trade, for a while yet.

In the security realm, military ties are growing, as agreed last December. PNG’s new national security policy and defence white paper provide a framework for prioritising growing cooperation. Abbott could usefully assure O’Neill that new vessels to replace its Pacific patrol boats are really coming and will meet PNG’s needs. Without this assurance, Port Moresby will continue to waste time window-shopping for frankly unaffordable vessels. (PNG may value Australian-provided boats more if it makes a financial contribution in return for greater input to their specifications.) For most Papua New Guineans, though, security means law and justice. Here, O’Neill values the visible AFP presence agreed last year. Australia’s also providing advice in the thorny area of anti-corruption, and we’ve made a start reinvigorating Bomana Police College. Yet the greatest help we could provide would be to deploy training-teams to generate large numbers of capable and disciplined PNG cops.

The PNG and Autonomous Bougainville Governments have made some progress advancing the peace process this year. However, while outcomes that might be acceptable to all—for instance, some form of independence-in-free-association—are conceivable, they’re far from assured and daunting practical challenges remain. Good communication between Port Moresby and Buka will be vital to ensure all parties prepare for, and can live with the results of, the coming referendum. Mr Abbott might usefully reiterate that Australia stands ready to assist such dialogue, and to help with any support the ABG requests, given our stake in avoiding renewed violence. As many Bougainvilleans rightly or wrongly consider that Australia was a party to the 1988–98 conflict, he could also indicate we’re ready to symbolically reconcile.

Finally, issues surrounding the Manus asylum-seeker facility will take centre-stage in public attention to the visit. Stephen Howes and Jenny Hayward-Jones have warned that Canberra’s focus on this matter could distort or damage interactions with Port Moresby. In fact, PNG’s centrality to ‘stopping the boats’ has had upsides as well as drawbacks up to now. Some in Port Moresby have valued the sense of a more equal partnership attached to ‘helping a friend’ rather than only ever being helped. This has probably contributed to friction points, such as PNG’s purchase of counterfeit drugs and Edward Snowden’s allegations being addressed calmly and mainly behind closed doors, as in grander ‘special relationships’. Even PNG’s suspension of visa-on-arrival arrangements hasn’t sparked noisy recriminations. However, the cost to O’Neill of helping Canberra is rising on a number of fronts: the issue of potential resettlement of asylum seekers in PNG approaches; a previously-stalled constitutional challenge is proceeding; and multiple inquiries into the killing of an asylum seeker on Manus sharpen neo-colonial ‘Pacific hellhole’ language. O’Neill and Abbott may need a clever formula to sustain this game of bluff.

Australia and PNG have some tricky issues to work through, but both PMs are strong communicators. Current bilateral relations seem as well placed as ever for frank, productive, discussions.

Karl Claxton is an analyst at ASPI. Image courtesy of Department of Defence.

Indian Ocean regionalism – picking up the pattern of connectivity

The members (dark green) and dialogue partners (light green) of the Indian Ocean Rim Association

It’s fair to say that, despite the existence of initiatives and organisations such as the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) and the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), Indian Ocean regional architecture is under-developed.  This reflects a lack of shared interests relative to some other regions, including limited economic and strategic integration, great socio-economic disparities, and modest people-to-people links.  Yet there’s benefit in seeking to address Indian Ocean transnational issues by regional means.

I recently attended a workshop in Mauritius organised by IORA, in association with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, on ‘IORA and Strategic Stability in the Indian Ocean’. I was asked to address the question of what IORA can do to build trust, confidence and effective security cooperation. Here are the key points of what I said in Port Louis. Read more

IORA is the only body with a broadly-based agenda that spans the region and meets at ministerial level.  But it has struggled to find common ground among its diverse membership and suffered from institutional weakness (its secretariat has fewer than ten people). This has led to narrow project-focused agendas and an absence of strategic focus.

Australia (as chair for the next two years), India, (the immediate past chair), Indonesia (the current vice chair), and South Africa (which intends to nominate to succeed Indonesia in two years), should drive a more productive IORA agenda.   South Africa’s intention to nominate for vice-chair is welcome, as it’s keen to strengthen IORA’s work program and practices.  But these four countries need to avoid any sense of dictating to IORA’s smaller members.

IORA has agreed to work on six priority areas: maritime safety and security; trade and investment facilitation; fisheries management; disaster risk management; science and technology and academic cooperation; and tourism and cultural exchanges.  The ‘Perth Principles’ Declaration on the peaceful, productive and sustainable use of the Indian Ocean and its resources was issued at IORA’s annual meeting in Perth in November last year and should guide IORA’s future work.

IORA should be using projects on oceanography and meteorology as a base for exploring more systematic work on the ‘blue’ economy. The Indian Ocean remains one of the least studied and understood of the world’s oceans, so IORA should support projects such as the ambitious International Indian Ocean Expedition 50th Anniversary Initiative (PDF).

Climate change is a huge issue for countries like Bangladesh, Seychelles and the Maldives. IORA should have a wider agenda on risk mitigation and humanitarian assistance arrangements in the Indian Ocean region. For example, an IORA protocol on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief could be useful.

lORA’s work on maritime security should complement any IONS initiatives. If IONS were to develop operational ‘pointy end’ type working groups, like the Western Pacific Naval Symposium has done, then  IORA should make sure it didn’t duplicate work on maritime affairs and was more strategic than IONS.

Ministers and senior officials need to be more involved in IORA’s work. For example, fisheries ministers could be engaged in work on fisheries management or science ministers in fostering collaboration on oceanic research. IORA should get regional buy-in by establishing regular senior officials meetings in each of the priority areas. Ad-hoc working groups could address thematic areas and facilitate strategic discussion in areas such as maritime cooperation.

The Perth communique noted the possibility of a formal post-meeting dialogue between lORA member states and Dialogue Partners. That’s a good idea and Australia should encourage Dialogue Partners to engage with lORA through association with and contribution to specific lORA initiatives, either financially or by in-kind support. An lORA Dialogue could be established after each annual meeting along the lines of the Pacific Islands Forum Post Forum Dialogue.

There’s an lORA Business Forum, but there are limited opportunities for senior business representatives at the annual IORA ministerial meeting for them to gain access to Ministers. To boost private sector engagement we need something like an Indian Ocean event, which could be held alongside IORA’s Ministerial meeting, equivalent to the Africa Down Under conference and designed to attract business and government officials.

lORA has an Academic Group as part of its structure, but it would get greater traction if it were a genuine Indian Ocean second track body focussing on IORA’s current concerns, just as CSCAP engages closely with the ARF.

The Indian Ocean is the ‘great connector’ between Asia and Europe and countries around the rim.  IORA’s core priority should be to keep the Indian Ocean as a peaceful maritime highway, where all can prosper.  IORA should have strategically focused meeting agendas to maximise discussion, driven by ministers, on core Indian Ocean regional cooperation issues.

My key message in Port Louis was that IORA needs a comprehensive engagement strategy with Indian Ocean government officials, academics and business. We want Indian Ocean elites to pick up the pattern of connectivity.

Anthony Bergin is deputy director of ASPI. Image courtesy of DFAT.

Ranking Fiji in Australia’s South Pacific interests

Fourth place

Canberra is offering Fiji a promotion in the hierarchy of Australian interests in the South Pacific.

Ranking how Australia sees the South Pacific gives some regional context for the bilateral play as Canberra tries to hit the reset button with Suva. This column offers an ordering of the relative importance and status Australia gives its relationships in the South Pacific. It follows the thoughts offered in previous columns (here, here, and here) on the clash of competing visions for the region between Canberra and Suva and on the range of goodies Australia is offering Fiji for normalisation.

Pecking orders are always problematic in foreign affairs because the range of issues and interests are so diverse. Being a hack, not a High Commissioner, I can ignore such concerns. But Australian governments have occasionally been so blunt as to do league ladders: the Howard government’s 1997 Foreign Affairs White Paper and the Gillard government’s Asian Century White Paper, for example. Read more

Taking advantage of that tradition, here’s the hierarchy of Australian interests in the South Pacific and what I’ve called the Australian Arc. Money always talks in such matters, so beside the Island countries you’ll find Australia’s aid spend for 2013-14, using the revised figures issued by the Abbott government in January.

  1. Papua New Guinea and New Zealand
  2. Solomon Islands Vanuatu and Timor Leste
  3. Pacific Islands, Samoa, Tonga
  4. Fiji
  5. France and its Pacific territories
  6. Nauru, Kiribati, Other Small Pacific Islands
  7. The Pacific Community and other regional organisations

1. PNG ($448.5m) and New Zealand. The two at the top are the easiest pick because this is unchanged since the 19th century. PNG was the colony that mattered to Oz. But now Australia sees the Pacific through the lens of PNG; see this ASPI paper describing PNG as more of a success than Australia had any right to expect.

The Kiwis, of course, still have the option of coming to their senses and joining the Australian Commonwealth, under the terms of our constitution. (Clarification: the constitutional option for New Zealand to convert to Oz is correct but the rest of the sentence falls into the category of poor jest—on both sides of the Tasman.)

2. Solomon Islands ($90.4m), Vanuatu ($40.9) and Timor Leste($70m). These three, along with PNG, are members of the Australian Arc or Australia’s Arc of Responsibility (PDF).

By its actions and words, Australia has given Solomons, Vanuatu and Timor security guarantees equal to the treaty assurance we’ve given PNG. The five countries in these top two categories are all recipients of Australian security promises via treaties (PNG and NZ) or declarations in successive defence white papers. The nature of that guarantee has expanded beyond protecting external security to a range of commitments to maintain their internal stability. In an ad hoc manner, Australia has expanded its role as security guarantor to match its position as the region’s largest aid donor.

3. Pacific Islands Forum ($20m approx), Samoa ($23.1m), Tonga ($17.2m). Now it gets interesting. In years gone by, Fiji would have ranked well ahead of the Forum. Hell, the Ratu Mara view was that Fiji created the Forum. By kicking Fiji out, Australia and New Zealand greatly elevated the Forum’s importance and caused huge offence to Fiji; the see-saw in recent years has been importance up, effectiveness down. The stoush with Fiji has had the Forum in a holding pattern that has trended downwards. Helping the Forum is part of what Australia wants from helping Fiji. The Australian view of the Forum as the preeminent regional organisation plays to Australia’s desire to have a major role in regional groupings as an expression of its insider rights as a South Pacific nation. For Australia, the Forum’s, not just a vehicle for regional consensus, but a mechanism to impose and police norms, with Fiji as the greatest example of this power.

The pushback from Fiji has been fierce. Suva has been talking up the Melanesian Spearhead Group and has now created the Pacific Islands Development Forum (unofficial motto: Kick the Kangaroos, Kiss off the Kiwis!). With that motto in mind, here’s Bainimarama speaking at the inaugural PIDF summit:

Why do we need a new body, a new framework of cooperation? Because the existing regional structure for the past four decades—the Pacific Islands Forum—is for Governments only and has also come to be dominated only by a few. In too many instances, it no longer genuinely represents our interests and needs.

Samoa and Tonga are on level three because of their standing in the region and their friendship and connections with Australia and New Zealand, confirmed over decades. On the aid measure and their positions beyond the Australian Arc, they need to be on the third rung, not the second. On the matter merely of how they treat Australian High Commissioners, they rank above Fiji in the Oz hierarchy—for now, anyway.

4. Fiji ($34.2)

5. France and its Pacific territories. Putting Fiji nearly on the same level as France is just as cheeky as putting Fiji below the Forum. Anthony Bergin has these thoughts on what France is contributing to the region and how Australia could lift the relationship, while Peter Jennings delivers this summing up of the remarkable change in the way France is viewed:

In the Pacific, France’s position has gone full circle from the unhappy nuclear-testing, insurgency fighting 1980s to a point where the French territories are now the model of stability and the envy of the region. France is a net contributor to Pacific Island security and one of very few countries prepared to do more to support more regional cooperation.

Australia has plenty of reasons to look beyond the old aches of Francophobia to see a France that can be a power of the Pacific.

Now some thoughts on the country on the fourth level: Long years of diplomatic nastiness and disappointments out of Suva have impacted the way Australia thinks about the region. Once, Fiji would have sat naturally on the second level, certainly ahead of the Forum and any contenders from Polynesia. This league ladder suggests that Australia will do what it needs to get some normalisation with Fiji, but it doesn’t have to accept Suva’s assessment of where it sits in the firmament. As a revisionist state seeking to change the regional system, Fiji deserves plenty of attention, but not undue weight in the regional hierarchy it’s attacking.

The interests of other players should encourage Australia not to fret too much about the Melanesian Spearhead Group or Fiji’s new version of the Forum. PNG and others in the region have plenty of selfish reasons not to accept Fiji’s view of its central importance.

In offering normalisation and seeking a relaxation of the fight over the regional system, Australia wants to see Fiji take a higher spot on the prestige/precedence ladder (as seen from Canberra, of course). The shift doesn’t have to be discussed using the language of hierarchy or relative importance. That’s the beauty of the ‘family’ image Julie Bishop used in Suva, while acknowledging Fiji’s right to broaden its diplomatic options:

Australia, likewise, is always seeking to develop new friendships, new networks, new alliances, new partnerships around the world. And we would expect a strong regional power like Fiji to develop relationships with other countries. But of course, Australia and New Zealand have longstanding relations with Fiji. We have very strong historic ties, military ties, trade and investment ties. Hundreds of thousands of Australians come to Fiji every year as their choice of a tourism destination. So while all countries should be seeking to forge new relationships in the interests of peace and greater prosperity, at the end of the day your friends and your family are what count. And Fiji, and Australia and New Zealand, should consider themselves as family.

Using that metaphor, it has been a family argument of Freudian fury or Shakespearean temper. And there’s no going back to what was before. Beyond Fiji’s election, though, there’s a chance for some calming of the clash of interests.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalism fellow. Image courtesy of Flickr user Stephanie Keeney.

Fiji: end sanctions now

Commander Land Force Colonel Mosese Tikoitoga briefs Prime Minister Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama. It's been reported that Colonel Tikoitoga  will take over from Prime Minister Bainimarama as Commander of the Republic of Fiji Military Forces.Improved relations between Australia and Fiji would benefit Canberra, Suva, and the region. Such ties would bolster Australia’s regional leadership credentials, assist Fiji’s dealings with its largest trading partner and donor, and prevent further collateral-damage to the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF).

According to the Fiji Ministry of Information, Prime Minister, Commodore Voreqe ‘Frank’ Bainimarama, will step down as head of the Fiji military today. Australia should respond by lifting sanctions right away.

In 2012, Graeme Dobell noted that the debate between pro-sanctions ‘hawks’ and pro-engagement ‘doves’ had become an arid argument. The strong points on each side of the debate, friction between key personalities, and mutual distrust had created an impasse. Those who suggested continuing isolation was only deepening regime intransigence and harming Canberra’s influence and interests were sometimes branded ‘appeasers’ by others who argued abandoning fundamental regional values would have significant practical as well as moral repercussions. Read more

That stalemate is easing thanks, firstly, to the circuit-breaker provided by the election of a new Australian government committed to trying to normalise relations (as one of just eight pre-election foreign policy priorities) and, secondly, to Suva’s concrete steps towards proper elections. But while that combination of factors means neither side had to capitulate, and allows each to move on, Richard Herr is probably right to warn the diplomatic breakthrough is as fragile as it is welcome.

Writing about the recent PIF Ministerial Contact Group visit to Suva, including Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s apparently successful Valentine’s Day meeting with Bainimarama, Elke Larsen from the CSIS calls reengagement ‘the right policy at the right time’ but cautions that regional powers need to ‘keep up pressure to ensure elections are genuinely free and fair’. I’d normally agree it’s sensible to hold some policy levers in reserve and to make any concessions progressively, but in this case I’d suggest that we’re presented with the opportunity and the need to be a bit more audacious than that.

That’s partly because retaining travel sanctions in principle serves only as an irritant and an insult when they’ve already ended in practice (as Dobell notes, only one out of the last 56 requests for compassionate, humanitarian or national interest exemptions has been rejected—and that on technical grounds). Whereas Bishop reportedly told Bainimarama the sanctions policy was under review and the next opportunity to take it to cabinet would be after he’s stepped down as army chief, setting-aside any conditionalities was a key ingredient in the success of her meeting with him. We’re likely to get further by trying to totally re-set the relationship than if we seem tricky or inclined to haggle over trading concessions on frustrations such as the non-accreditation of our High Commissioner designate. If things go badly, new measures might be preferable to reviving the old ones that helped delegitimise the coup but did little to change Fiji’s behaviour. Let’s instead try to avoid reaching that point by signalling that Bainimarama’s willingness to do the right thing will be rewarded.

Rowan Callick suggests Bishop’s highlighting the prospect of renewed defence ties was probably crucial to demonstrate that Canberra’s ready to go forward in partnership with Suva. But, as Anthony Bergin suggests, it’ll be useful to look beyond just the barracks for areas of mutually beneficial security cooperation. ASPI identifies opportunities in areas such as maritime security, enhanced peacekeeping cooperation, disaster resilience, and law enforcement and justice.

Once Bainimarama steps down as military chief, we’ll have little to lose and much to gain by positively reinforcing that move. A leap of faith now would entail some risk, but not acting carries the greater risk that we’ll miss building sway we might need later. Moving forward boldly and in good faith would increase the likelihood of further positive outcomes eventuating. If things go badly, it wouldn’t leave ‘egg on our face’, rather we would have strengthened our moral and practical sway. It’s time to move from the principle of ‘first, do no harm’ to ‘seize the day.’

Karl Claxton is an analyst at ASPI. Image courtesy of the Fijian Government

Sweet and sour goodies for Fiji (part 2)

Sweet and sour?

All change for Fiji. The Supremo is hanging up his uniform and becoming a civilian leader to give his New Order vision democratic credentials. For Canberra and Suva, this is the time to change the script as everyone prepares for elections. This series started by discussing the systemic struggle between Australia as the status quo power in the South Pacific and Fiji as the revisionist power.

My previous column discussed the sweet and the sour of the diplomatic goodies Australia is deploying as it pursues normalisation. Now I’ll turn to the range of mutually beneficial goodies on offer. Read more

First up is a public service ‘twinning’ arrangement so that Fijian officials can work in Canberra and Australians in Suva. This is a major break from a long history of distrust and argy bargy. In her Suva visit, Australia’s Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, was upbeat about how quickly the ‘twinning’ idea could be made to happen:

I believe that we will see more Australian engagement in Fiji. We have offered to send our public servants over here in areas such as the Treasury, Finance, Foreign Affairs—that was well received. Likewise, we’ve invited representatives of the Fijian public service to Australia in various areas and that seemed to be well received. So the steps will hopefully transform into reality over the weeks ahead.

The struggle between Australia and Fiji over the regional system will have to be calmed before Australian public servants are launched into Fiji’s bureaucracy. And it’ll be a strange look if Oz public servants head to Suva to start ‘twinning’ ahead of Australia’s High Commissioner to Fiji, Margaret Twoomey. After all, she has been waiting to be admitted to Fiji since her appointment was announced in 2012.

Also on the agenda is defence cooperation, which was suspended after the 2006 coup. The resumption of defence contacts involves myriad steps, such as the exchange of defence attaches, officer training and the entry of Fiji’s Defence Minister to the annual South Pacific Defence Minister’s Meeting, which started last year. The eventual return to joint training will be helped by the fact that a certain Fijian Commodore will no longer be in uniform. As Anthony Bergin wrote last week, restoring defence cooperation means Australia can support Fiji’s UN peacekeeping efforts and explore wider national security cooperation in maritime affairs, disaster resilience, law enforcement and cyber security. The ‘twinning’ model opens new avenues.

Fiji will also be invited to be part of Australia’s Pacific Maritime Security Program. Fiji has a standing defence pledge that it will be readmitted to the Pacific Patrol Boat program ‘upon a return to democracy’. Suva got that nod in the Australian Defence White Paper last year, which promised to replace the existing Pacific Patrol Boats as they come to the end of their service from 2018 to 2028. The three boats Australia gave Fiji are due to reach their end of service life in 2024-25, so the replacement counts as a long term promise. (See the paper by Anthony Bergin and Sam Bateman on the Pacific Patrol Boat program here.)

Other avenues of increased cooperation include:

  • Australia’s seasonal workers’ program, bringing Islanders to Australia for seasonal jobs, could be extended to Fijians
  • Fiji could be a target in 2015 for the New Colombo Plan, to send Australia’s ‘best and brightest young people’ to study in the Asia Pacific
  • Re-establishing the Australia-Fiji Government Industry Working Group, which last met before the 2006 coup, to generate more trade and investment. In Suva, Bishop said Australia would look at Fiji’s concerns about the working of their double taxation agreement.

The normalisation involved in Australia’s bilateral goodies feeds through to a set of multilateral gifts/rewards, such as the end to Fiji’s suspension (since 2009, after Bainimarama’s failure to deliver promised elections) from the Pacific Islands Forum and the Commonwealth.

The Forum Ministerial Contact Group, concluding its visit to Suva on February 15, announced that the door would soon be open for Fiji to participate in PACER Plus negotiations (the free trade talks between Australia, New Zealand and the Islands) and also to attend Forum Trade Ministers’ Meetings at ministerial level.

In laying out the goodies, Australia is seeking normalisation ahead of the election. And Canberra’s effectively offering Fiji a promotion in the hierarchy of Australia’s regional interests—even if Bainimarama’s New Order can cement its hold in the election. My next column will consider how Australia’s past actions demoted Fiji from the second to the fourth level of its regional hierarchy and what changes to that order would mean.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalism fellow. Image courtesy of Flickr user libraryman.

Sweet and sour goodies for Fiji (part 1)

Australia is setting out an array of goodies as it seeks to restore relations with Fiji, in anticipation of better days to follow September’s election. Canberra wants to achieve a diplomatic ceasefire, and to shift beyond the battle between Australia as the status quo South Pacific superpower and a revisionist Fiji that wants to remake the regional rules.

As my previous column noted, Australia’s interest is in preserving its central role in the South Pacific. Fiji, under Bainimarama, would prefer a region that treated Australia as an outsider, not an insider. Normalisation could damp the flames of that fight, even if the fire is far from extinguished.

The goodies Australia is offering Fiji serve two aims that aren’t necessarily complimentary: immediate goals for the future of Fiji and its politics and longer-term arguments about the shape of the Pacific system. Helping Fiji in the run up to the election will open the way for the broader regional game that will follow. The goal is to slowly turn a diplomatic ceasefire into some form of peaceful relationship, with both bilateral and regional dimensions. Read more

The brawling between Australia and the military regime since the 2006 coup and the nature of the new government that’ll emerge from Fiji’s vote make this a hesitant and conditional project. The shift from isolation and sanction to normalisation and engagement is more than just a matter of changing course and altering language; the shift is from mind games to an attempt to find some meeting of minds.

Bainimarama assumes he’ll win the election handsomely. Canberra is merely resigned to such a win, while hoping that Fiji’s voters and the new electoral system will deliver surprises. The Supremo is used to giving orders, not taking them from the voters nor negotiating, as a civilian, with other civilian politicians. The machinery of Bainimarama’s New Order is about to have a crucial road test. If things turn out as Bainimarama anticipates, his hand at home and in the region will be strengthened and his options widened.

The election result and the government that emerges will decide the tempo and the temper of the Australian goodies. Looking at the inducements Australia is offering prompts the thought that this is an assortment of sweet-and-sour lollies. Each of the goodies has its attractions, but they all carry reminders of much sourness between two countries that have spent years kicking each other. To bed down a diplomatic ceasefire and start the march towards a peaceful relationship is going to mean moving beyond a lot of sour history. Not least of the questions is whether a mercurial Supremo emerges from a bout of electoral politics as a different sort of civilian Prime Minister; or whether a Bainimarama with a democratic mandate is empowered to push even harder for his New Order vision for Fiji and his new order for the South Pacific.

With all that in mind, consider, initially, these diplomatic goodies, and see the sour that goes with the sweet. Australia is offering to:

  • Support Fiji’s return to democracy and rebuild ‘the bilateral relationship into a dynamic and productive partnership’. This language is always accompanied by a gentle pull on the money lever with a reference to economic ties, tourism, and Australia’s continuing role, throughout the troubles, as Fiji’s largest bilateral aid donor.
  • To end what are now partial and discretionary travel sanctions on Suva’s elite. The continuing anger of the regime at the restrictions shows that they’ve had a symbolic value that nearly equates to their irritant quality. Fiji’s Attorney-General called the travel sanctions an ‘abomination’. This from a regime that overthrew an elected government at gun point, abrogated the constitution, subdued the judiciary, churches and civil society and has held its society in political limbo for eight years. Part of the sour in any deal is that Australia will have to swallow Suva’s view that it’s Canberra that has been guilty of abominable behaviour and it’s now for Australia to atone for its sins. Australia is going to cop it sweet. The new script is all about the future. During her Suva visit, Australia’s Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, said since taking office in September the Abbott government has abandoned the black list and had ‘granted visas to virtually every person from Fiji who has applied. I think 56 visas have been granted in recent months and so, as Fiji progresses to an election, then we will progressively ease these sanctions and I think quite a breakthrough was reached in that regard’.
  • To fully restore normal diplomatic relations. Bishop said that normalisation isn’t conditional on Fiji admitting Australia’s nominated High Commissioner, Margaret Twomey. This comment points to a strange Suva saga. At a meeting in July, 2012, the Foreign Ministers of Australia, Fiji, New Zealand agreed that the three countries would end the bout of tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions and reinstate their High Commissioners (Ambassadors).

Acting after receiving the normal and formal agreement from Suva, Australia announced in December, 2012, that Margaret Twomey would become the new High Commissioner in Fiji. She’s still sitting in Canberra waiting for Fiji to grant an entry visa. The farce has thus stretched from 2012 to 2014, a reminder that what the Supremo promises is not always what he delivers. The symbolism and substance of diplomatic exchanges is subject to Bainimarama’s temper. He says keeping the High Commissioner in the waiting lounge is a way of punishing Australia for its lack of respect and its campaign against Fiji.

Refer to that previous reference to the appropriate arcane diplomatic term (cop it sweet). The new script has an array of other goodies beyond diplomatic normalisation, which will be considered in my next column.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalism fellow. 

Status quo Australia versus revisionist Fiji

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop meets with Fijian PM Frank Bainimarama during an official visit to Suva in February 2014

Australia likes the existing South Pacific system, while Fiji wants to change it. Even if Fiji returns to democracy, the prospect is for continuing competition between Suva and Canberra over competing visions of the regional future: who’s in, who’s out, and who decides.

As the South Pacific superpower, Australia is committed to playing the central role in the maintenance of the regional status quo. Not the least element in the Australian vision of the established order is its assumed entitlement to the full membership rights of a South Pacific insider. Australia always wants to be a power perceived as being in the South Pacific as well as being the South Pacific power. The gap in that distinction has been probed, teased and tested by Fiji’s Supremo.

Under Frank Bainimarama, Fiji has shifted a long way from its role as the conservative centre of the region and champion of the gradualist, consensual ‘Pacific Way’. Fiji has become the revisionist power that wants changes to the regional system to realign power, fix injustices and better serve its interests. Not the least of that revision would be to strip Australia of its status as an insider. A big bit of Fiji’s revisionist agenda would be to redefine regionalism so that Australia isn’t part of the South Pacific. In this revision, New Zealand would also be expelled—Canberra and Wellington would become powerful outsiders, not natural insiders. Read more

Much is to be played for as Canberra and Suva try to hit the reset button in their fractious and fractured relationship. The focal issue is Fiji’s democracy; but over long years of battle, the contest has broadened to become a fight about the South Pacific system.

The bonhomie of the meeting between Fiji’s Supremo and Australia’s Foreign Minister was based on the elections Bainimarama has promised by September and Julie Bishop’s determination to normalise relations. The Suva meeting was the first time a senior Australian government minister has met Bainimarama since 2008.

The picture from the talks had a football flavour, with Bishop presenting Bainimarama with a West Coast Eagles AFL jersey signed by Nic Naitanui, a towering Fijian who plays Australian rules footy. No jokes please about Bainimarama being asked to play by Aussie rules again, although that reflects how Canberra would like to see normalisation work. On the other side of the elections, Australia wants Fiji to come back into the Forum and to come to some fresh acceptance of the old regional status quo.

Fiji’s clear interest is to win back what it has lost—international status as a democracy, membership of the Forum, full recognition of the prerogatives of the Suva elite that serve the Supremo and a comfortable economic relationship with Australia— while pushing on with revisions to the way the Pacific operates. This is the long game in the new dance between Suva and Canberra. The aim of the reset expressed in Bishop’s meeting with Bainimarama is to see what levels of accommodation can be achieved.

The effort will be to shift beyond anger and argy bargy. Lots of baggage from recent history has to be rearranged, stored for later or politely forgotten. Since Bainimarama imposed his second successful coup in 2006, Australia and Fiji have been bristling at each other. The differences go beyond the principle of democracy versus military dictatorship; the struggle has turned into this contest— status quo power versus revisionist state— over how the South Pacific should work. Fiji’s elections won’t see an end to that contest.

Richard Herr went to those systemic issues in his musings on the guns-and-roses symbolism of the Valentine’s Day meeting between Bishop and the Supremo:

Fiji’s relationship with the Pacific Islands Forum won’t necessarily be repaired by the bilateral re-engagement, nor will Australia’s role in the regional body return to pre-sanction levels. Prime Minister Bainimarama is currently building a headquarters for a new regional body that excludes Australia and is intended to parallel the PIF. The regional roles for Fiji and Australia have been forced apart by Fiji’s suspension from the PIF orchestrated by Canberra. Reconvergence is not impossible but it’s unlikely to be fully achieved any time soon. Regional affairs will remain a separate and significant issue for Australia.

Significant, indeed. There’s a lot to play for. On a stylistic point, I’ll have to stop calling Bainimarama the Supremo when he renounces his job as head of the military and settles for merely being Prime Minister. Following the New Order script, the civilian leader can then announce the creation of his Golkar-style political party—a new form of movement not tainted by old party politics.

It’s in Australia’s interest to embrace whatever level of democracy Fiji is allowed to have. And to achieve a normalisation of relations that restores as much of the regional status quo as is achievable. My next columns will consider the sweet and sour aspects of the goodies Australia is offering Fiji in trying to reset the relationship.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalism fellow. Image courtesy of the Fijian Government.

Reader response: Fiji and Australia rapprochement

Richard Herr was right to say that there was ‘no massacre of hopes’ in Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s visit to Suva to meet with Fiji’s Prime Minister, Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama.

As Richard noted, it proved more of a love-in than a confrontation. But there’s no doubt that Minister Bishop took on a political risk with her Fiji policy shift. It’s now clear, however, that the risk was worth taking: she was praised in Suva, in the Australian media and the think tank world after the visit.

Ever since Julie Bishop announced some time back that there would be change in our Fiji policy, there were plenty of nay-sayers on the merits of shifting from our hard line position of trying to isolate Fiji. During the Rudd years in particular, such views had over-weening influence on the Australia-Fiji relationship, to our disadvantage in the region. Read more

Being able to restore defence cooperation was a very good outcome of Minister Bishop’s visit. We should support Fiji’s UN peacekeeping efforts (Fiji has a long history of involvement here), and immediately restore places at Duntroon and our staff colleges. We could also look to explore wider national security cooperation in areas such as maritime affairs, disaster resilience, law enforcement and cyber security. After all, Fiji’s Prime Minister has delivered on his Fiji Roadmap (PDF) to date, and the elections are on track, with Australian and New Zealander people working in the elections office.

The retirement of Fiji’s Prime Minister from the Commander RFMF post at the end of this month also presents an opportune time to lift our travel bans. As Fiji’s Attorney General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum recently made clear, our travel sanctions are a calculated insult and have been damaging to the formation of public Boards in Fiji:

I call [travel sanctions] an abomination, in the sense that how can you in this globalised world have that type of travel ban placed on individuals who are completely political. They have nothing to do, for example, the events of 5th of December, ’06. So it was a form of what we believe, a form of economic sabotage. Why would you want to deprive a country from not being able to access the best brains that’s available to help run the country or to help sit on various state-owned enterprises… there are still some people who are reluctant to come on board, because of the fact that there’s been no general announcement made, so people don’t want to necessarily go through the throws of we’ll deal with these matter on a case-by-case basis and they do not necessarily understand the extent of the travel ban… these are not people who are political people, these are very apolitical people who are professionals, who want to contribute to their country.

Fiji has been more independent over recent years, but there’s absolutely no reason why a cooperative bilateral relationship can’t be reinstated to the mutual benefit of both countries.

Anthony Bergin is deputy director of ASPI.

Australia–France dialogue requires Pacific involvement

A French soldier and Australian officer help land a LARC at Poum, New Caledonia during Exercise Croix du Sud 2008. Independence movements in French territories in the Pacific have the potential to affect closer Australia-France defence cooperation in the region.

In their recent Strategist posts, Anthony Bergin and Peter Jennings propose closer defence cooperation between Australia and France, following the ASPI Australia–France Defence and Industry Dialogue.

But surprisingly, both authors are largely silent about the regional political context, even though the future of France’s Pacific dependencies is high on the agenda of organisations such as the Pacific Islands Forum and the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG).

Peter Jennings says ‘the business of strategy is to look to the future’, but there’s no mention of looming political developments in New Caledonia and French Polynesia that could affect Australia–France relations.

Regional defence cooperation might be complicated by a range of factors:

  • France’s decision, following its 2008 Defence White Paper, to relocate military forces from French Polynesia to New Caledonia as part of its global defence restructuring
  • even as the Rudd government signed a Joint Statement of Strategic Partnership with France in 2012, Fiji and Papua New Guinea (both members of the United Nations Special Committee on Decolonisation) worked with the Non-Aligned Movement to promote self-determination for French Polynesia
  • in May 2013, the United Nations General Assembly decided to re-inscribe French Polynesia on its list of non-self-governing territories, opening the way for increased international scrutiny of France’s colonial policy in the region
  • the parliament chosen in New Caledonia’s May 2014 elections will have a crucial role in deciding New Caledonia’s future political status, with the incoming Congress to decide whether to proceed to a referendum on self-determination.

Read more

In an interview during his September 2008 visit to Australia, then French Defence Minister Hervé Morin said:

France is in the process of restructuring its defence capabilities and we have decided that New Caledonia will become a major presence and major base in the Pacific. We decided to do this because New Caledonia is close to Australia and for us this base in New Caledonia will be the means through which we will grow our cooperation with Australia.

However at the time, a key leader of New Caledonia’s independence movement Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS) stated he’s ‘fundamentally opposed’ to French military restructuring in the region, and ‘astonished’ about the lack of consultation from Australia and New Zealand as they forge closer ties to the French military. As the Australia France Defence Co-Operation Agreement came into force in 2009, Kanak independence leader Roch Wamytan told me: ‘Australia and New Zealand have long supported us on our path to emancipation. So I’m really astonished that [they] are engaged in this without even talking to us’.

I’d suggest it’s dangerous for Australia’s strategic policy community to advocate closer security ties with France without a deeper analysis of how our Pacific neighbours regard this policy (especially this year, when the Melanesian Spearhead Group is chaired by Victor Tutugoro, the spokesman of New Caledonia’s FLNKS independence coalition). With ASPI and the Lowy Institute deeply engaged in discussion with French officials, there’s a danger that Australian think tanks are undervaluing the perspectives of our Melanesian neighbours at a time of significant change in the French Pacific.

Australia could easily end up backing French colonial policy, as occurred under the previous ALP government when Canberra didn’t support the re-inscription of French Polynesia at the United Nations. In 2012, former Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs Richard Marles told me in an interview: ‘We absolutely take our lead from France on this’. In contrast, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Nauru and Tuvalu have lobbied various forums for French Polynesia’s re-inscription.

Anthony Bergin highlights the potential for humanitarian and maritime cooperation by the FRANZ treaty partners. But what if the French military are once again deployed in the region to defend French sovereignty, as they were in the 1980s during the violent clashes in New Caledonia known as Les Evénements?

The belief in Canberra that New Caledonia’s Nouméa Accord process will run smoothly to its conclusion needs to be tested, rather than just assumed as the basis for policy-making. With sharp political differences emerging over the best way to determine New Caledonia’s future political status, the role of the French military may become more contentious, especially as senior commanders have talked about the military’s ongoing role in the Pacific into future decades.

With the Australian Defence Force considering use of French military installations in New Caledonia, will they become ‘facts on the ground’ as New Caledonians seek to lessen the influence of Paris in the South Pacific? Does a strategic partnership between Australia and France involve the ongoing presence of French military forces in the Pacific territories, even after independence? Will closer ties between Canberra and Paris—driven by a global agenda on Afghanistan, counterterrorism and arms sales—be welcomed by our Melanesian neighbours if the French government backtracks on its support for the Nouméa Accord?

As New Caledonia moves towards a decision on its future political status, these are fundamental questions for Australia, New Zealand and other Forum member countries. ASPI and other think tanks may wish to consider a security dialogue that extends beyond French defence and foreign affairs officials.

Nic Maclellan is a correspondent with Islands Business magazine (Fiji) and co-author of La France dans le Pacifique – de Bougainville à Moruroa (Editions La Découverte, Paris) and After Moruroa – France in the South Pacific (Ocean Press, New York and Melbourne). Image credit to Australian Defence Image Library.