ASPI’s decades: South Pacific breaches and beaches

ASPI celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. This series looks at ASPI’s work since its creation in August 2001.

The strategic jolts and jumps in Australia’s South Pacific policy during ASPI’s first two decades alliterate as the Bainimarama breach and Beijing’s arrival on island beaches.

The big breach in Australia’s relations with the Pacific islands was with Fiji, after the 2006 military coup by Frank Bainimarama. Criticism and then sanctions on members of the regime by Australia and New Zealand met angry pushback from Suva, becoming an argument about whose vision of Pacific regionalism should prevail.

The contest went to a new level in 2009 when Fiji’s Court of Appeal ruled the 2006 coup illegal. In response, the constitution was abolished and all judicial appointments revoked, so all power stayed with Bainimarama. Fiji was ejected from the Pacific Islands Forum. The punishment was taken as insult by Fiji—a nation that sees itself as the creator of the forum—and hosts the forum secretariat in Suva.

Australia should condemn Bainimarama but ‘keep this in proportion’, Anthony Bergin said; ‘Fiji isn’t Zimbabwe.’ Even if Canberra–Suva dialogue was difficult, Canberra needed to offer rewards not rancor, Bergin wrote in 2009:

[W]e must be realistic about our ability to influence developments within Fiji: we learnt to live with a military dominated government in Indonesia for thirty years. Thailand, with its history of coups, is one of our closest regional partners. The road back to democracy will not be easy. The military in Fiji will remain highly influential even after it returns to barracks.

In 2010, Richard Herr called for a fresh Canberra approach to eliminate festering irritants with Suva: ‘The degraded state of relations between Australia and Fiji cannot be restored to their pre-coup status without addressing the profound distrust between the two governments.’ Australia should look beyond the defiant language from Fiji, Herr said, and re-engage.

Shunned by the forum, Suva turned to Beijing and sought new expressions of regionalism that excluded Australia and New Zealand. Fiji remained a member of the Melanesian Spearhead Group, and China joined in seeking a more active role for the MSG. Ron May thought it unlikely that the MSG could pose a serious threat to the Forum, but China was now a big aid donor, set to play a larger role in the islands: ‘A unified MSG, backed by China, could provide a counterweight to the strong influences exerted by Australia and New Zealand through the Pacific Islands Forum.’

Australia was losing influence over collective decision-making in the South Pacific, Richard Herr and Anthony Bergin judged in 2011. The islands were displaying an increasingly independent fascination with Asia, and preferred regional representation at the United Nations that excluded Australia:

The Pacific islands region has been undergoing a substantial and dynamic change in its geopolitics, with profound consequences for Australia. The changing tectonics of the Asian century, the dramatic rise of China and a bitter intra-regional dispute with Fiji are amongst the most visible developments. Although Australia is the largest donor in the region as well as its most influential political actor, these geopolitical shifts have raised serious questions about the contemporary effectiveness of our regional relationships.

Time and unsettled times offered the chance for a patch-up with Fiji.

On a visit to Suva in 2019, Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s talk of Australia and the ‘Pacific family’ got a Bainimarama blessing.

Proclaiming a reset and an open and candid future, Fiji’s prime minister embraced the family concept: ‘I am proud to say that Prime Minister Morrison and I have dubbed a new Fiji–Australia Vuvale Partnership aiming to consolidate our two countries’ relations in order to leverage new opportunities and address common challenges.’

In Fiji’s indigenous i-Taukei language, vuvale means family. Here was a significant political gift from a leader who had spent a decade waging diplomatic war against Canberra. Bainimarama decided Australia had things Fiji needed, even if only to balance ties with China.

In Securing the Pacific, Karl Claxton wrote of the serious security challenges—mainly internal—facing all of Australia’s Melanesian partners and most of Polynesia and Micronesia.

Having concentrated on the Middle East and North Asia, Australian defence thinking was swinging back to stability and security in the South Pacific and Timor-Leste. Every defence white paper since 1976 had included the South Pacific as a main focus, Claxton noted, and the 2013 white paper had made the islands the principal task after preventing attacks on Australia:

Canberra’s renewed attention mainly reflects concerns that security in the near neighbourhood could deteriorate quickly in the face of persistent development and security challenges, requiring the ADF to conduct stabilisation missions. The challenges include fast-growing populations, youth bulges, high unemployment, periodic political instability and poor governance.

The regional focus, Claxton judged, reflected ‘anxieties about local ripples from China’s rise’.

The 2016 defence white paper repeated that after defending Australia, the second ‘strategic defence interest’ was a secure nearer region, encompassing maritime Southeast Asia and the South Pacific:

Australia cannot be secure if our immediate neighbourhood including Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste and Pacific Island Countries becomes a source of threat to Australia. This includes the threat of a foreign military power seeking influence in ways that could challenge the security of our maritime approaches or transnational crime targeting Australian interests.

The 2020 defence strategic update described an era of state fragility, marked by coercion, competition, grey-zone activities and increased potential for conflict.

Part of the update’s response to what was on the horizon was the expansion of the over-the-horizon radar. The Jindalee Operational Radar Network (JORN) would be extended ‘to provide wide area surveillance of Australia’s eastern approaches’.

‘Eastern approaches’ was a polite way of saying ‘Melanesia’.

Australia wanted a constant view of every ship and plane operating in the South Pacific arc. What JORN did for Australia’s northern and western approaches was to be extended to the east.

The strategic update announced that the JORN site at Longreach in central Queensland would be expanded to look east as well as north. The existing Longreach transmission station covered most of Papua New Guinea and further north to the Bismarck Sea. A new eastern array will sweep around from PNG to cover Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and New Caledonia, probably reaching out as far as Fiji.

Canberra confronts a grave new fact: our strategic interests in the South Pacific are directly challenged by China. That stark fact casts a deeply different light on Australia’s desire to be the preferred security partner of the islands. It’s a thought about China at the heart of the third paragraph of chapter 1 of the 2020 strategic update:

Since 2016, major powers have become more assertive in advancing their strategic preferences and seeking to exert influence, including China’s active pursuit of greater influence in the Indo-Pacific. Australia is concerned by the potential for actions, such as the establishment of military bases, which could undermine stability in the Indo-Pacific and our immediate region.

Link those thoughts about ‘establishment of military bases’ and ‘our immediate region’ to express this conclusion: Australia thinks China wants a base in Melanesia. The worry about a foreign military power has become a fear of China seeking a base in Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu or Solomon Islands.

Australia had not had to worry about a security threat from the east since the battle of the Coral Sea in 1942. Now it did.

Drawn from the book on the institute’s first 20 years: An informed and independent voice: ASPI, 2001–2021.