Ardern–Morrison meeting about the Pacific, not China policy shenanigans
29 May 2021|

Scott Morrison and Jacinda Ardern will prove the Australia–New Zealand travel bubble works when they meet in Queenstown next week. Breathless commentary suggests it’s going to be a difficult meeting over China policy, but that’s unlikely. Instead, the two leaders will almost certainly spend the time accelerating a critical agenda for our two nations with our Pacific partners.

New Zealand and Australia have deeply complementary strengths and interests, and there’s real work to do in three areas: vaccine distribution to underpin a travel bubble, Pacific media, and getting our big banks to reverse their quiet retreat from a decent physical retail bank presence.

There’s an urgent need for Australia and New Zealand to run an accelerated Covid-19 vaccine distribution campaign in the South Pacific. As we’re seeing in Victoria, even nations with closed borders and tight quarantine approaches are vulnerable, particularly to more virulent strains of Covid. Safety comes from vaccination combined with these other policy measures.

South Pacific economies are deeply tourism-dependent and New Zealand and Australia provide the bulk of their visitors, which benefits us all. Restarting the tourist flow is the best structural economic assistance we can provide. But South Pacific nations won’t—and shouldn’t—let travellers arrive until they’re able to manage the risks. Along with other measures and safeguards, that means having their own populations protected through vaccination and having arriving Australians and New Zealanders vaccinated too.

By 26 May, South Pacific states had 43,441 recorded Covid cases and 453 deaths, with 42,366 of these cases in Papua New Guinea, the two French territories and Guam. A travel bubble with these jurisdictions is a way off.

The population of the remaining 15 Pacific states including Fiji, the Solomon Islands, Samoa, Vanuatu and Tonga is about 1.6 million people. So, it’s absolutely possible to get their entire populations vaccinated rapidly. But that will only happen if we accelerate vaccine access and distribution alongside the slower moving but invaluable international COVAX program for the Western Pacific.

That can happen if Morrison and Ardern push our governments and private deliverers of health services (think Aspen Medical) to undertake a joint vaccination campaign at scale and speed across the Pacific over the next three months.

Australia has available stocks of locally made Astra Zeneca vaccines because of the own goal we’ve scored in over-emphasising the vanishingly small risk of serious side effects. We’ve ordered some 50 million doses from CSL, which is apparently making about a million doses a week.

That means two doses for 1.6 million South Pacific islanders is just over three weeks’ production. So, let’s turn our own goal to the advantage of our Pacific neighbours. Like me, they can be vaccinated ahead of people waiting on slower offshore vaccine production.

An emergency mass vaccination program was delivered in 2019 by Australia and New Zealand in Samoa—for measles, not Covid. We have the experience and capability to do this fast. Either we do so, or we leave South Pacific states waiting for COVAX to deliver and living with risk, or turning to costly, less-well-documented vaccines from China and Russia. Let’s not let that happen.

The second key agenda item is Pacific media content, and funding and access to it.

The Pacific information environment is in a state of disruption and change, with some new actors, including Chinese state media, growing in influence. As with their broader economies, Pacific media outfits have taken a financial hammering from the pandemic. That’s compounded existing challenges from the rise of digital media and the migration of advertising revenue.

ASPI’s written about the need for Australia to get back into the game in South Pacific media through funding co-created content by Australian and South Pacific journalists using radio, TV and digital platforms. So far, Australia’s failed to do this, with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s soft-power review folding and no money in the budget for anything along these lines. It’s a missing step in the prime minister’s step-up.

New Zealand is well ahead of Australia here, with a vibrant Pacific Media Network that’s bringing Pacific voices into New Zealand while providing quality New Zealand news across the Pacific. There’s room for Australia to magnify this good work and bring more diverse voices and content into the Pacific, and into our own domestic debates.

As with vaccines, nature abhors a vacuum, so if Australia fails to step up here, the rising tide of Chinese state media content and assistance to struggling national and independent news outfits in Pacific states will reshape the information environment in ways that won’t work well for our neighbours or for us.

The third agenda item should seek ways to reverse our big banks’ shrinking presence in the Pacific. Late last year, Westpac sold its extensive bank operations in PNG and Fiji, having already left smaller Pacific states. ANZ has also decided to sell its retail operations in PNG.

As my colleague, Anthony Bergin, wrote with Jeff Wall back in January, ‘the departure of Westpac and the scaling back of ANZ leave a gaping hole in Australia’s presence at a critical time’. These banks have provided important support for Australian and New Zealand businesses in the South Pacific and their retail presence is a key element of deepening economic relations at the population level.

Nothing happens without finance so, as with media, banking presence is vital if Australia’s step-up and New Zealand’s ‘reset’ are to succeed.

That brings us to the topic that has dominated commentary leading up to the meeting: China policy.

There’s no doubt that current New Zealand policy settings and public diplomacy look outdated to deal with Xi Jinping’s China. They’re very much the policy settings Australia and others had on China before Xi—mutual economic engagement as the huge limb to the relationship, with security and strategic-interest differences in the background.

But the assertive and coercive China that New Zealand and many other nations are experiencing now is a different beast to the ‘responsible stakeholder’ many hoped China might become in the 2010s.

Quiet backroom diplomacy on issues like mass-scale human-rights abuses or coercive trade actions, combined with a reluctance to be seen to part of growing international approaches to manage China’s aggression is not sustainable policy given New Zealand’s interests and values.

That approach fitted that earlier time and will almost certainly not work other than as a way to go through the motions on policy differences while avoiding trouble.

There’s also the prospect that New Zealand clearly distinguishing itself on China policy from like-minded partners—the other four democracies in the Five Eyes intelligence partnership come to mind—won’t create space for it. Instead, it will bring more pressure and attention from Beijing as it seeks to widen the gap between New Zealand and its closest security partners. Splitting opposition and reducing cohesion is a well-worn path of the Chinese Communist Party.

But NZ leaders and agencies are well aware of these issues and risks. They don’t need a visiting Australian prime minister to tell them that it’s smart to start diversifying their economy away from the mainline dependency that New Zealand, Australia and many other nations blindly created as we rushed towards the riches of the China market.

New Zealand will experience the China challenge as multiple other nations are beginning to. The arc of New Zealand’s policy will converge with that we see in the G7, the European Commission and the series of Quad and two-nation leader-level meetings over just this first half of 2021.

So, expectations of fireworks and angst in Queenstown are misplaced. We should instead measure the meeting’s success by its shared, urgent agenda—focused on the wellbeing, prosperity and security of Australia, New Zealand and our Pacific family.