Australia’s engagement in the South Pacific: thinking beyond the incremental
14 Aug 2018|

Australia can base its engagement with the South Pacific on strategic, economic, environmental and resource issues, but we’d be much better off building our relationships on something that is both deeper and more appealing: we like the people of the South Pacific and we think that their success and the success of their nations is good for us.

This basis for Australian engagement—which informs strategic, economic, cultural and environmental agendas—is a much more inspiring one than simple mercantile advantage or viewing South Pacific nations as pawns in a game of great-power competition.

Next month’s Pacific Islands Forum meeting will focus on security, centred on discussion of the ‘Biketawa Plus’ declaration. That’s good, though we might start with some broader agenda items that put security into context as just one part of our relationships.

So, what might a more aspirational approach look like? A complete agenda would take longer than an article of this length, so I’ll just give a bit of a tasting menu to show what might be possible.

Let’s start with something that’s very big in all our nations and excites great swathes of our peoples—sport. As we’ve seen with North Korea and the Asian Winter Games, or even during the Soccer World Cup, sport can connect people. The region is filled with fans and future players of rugby union, and Australian teams have many South Pacific players. Papua New Guinea lives and breathes rugby league.

Why couldn’t the Australian government build on those connections and push for South Pacific nations’ participation in the Super Rugby competition, the National Rugby League and National Netball League? Although some start-up funding might be required to get through the rough early years, those investments will create opportunities for people-to-people links, tourism and business relationships. The idea fits with ASPI’s Our near abroad and Australia’s sports diplomacy strategy.

We could also think creatively about using the new infrastructure that’s being built in the South Pacific (not just how to build more of it). Why not work with the Vanuatu government, for example, to maximise the economic benefits from the new wharf on Luganville? It could be a mix of government and private-sector arrangements, involving, say, the cruise industry and our navy and maritime elements. We could work with our other partners so that big new projects—like airfields, roads and ports—don’t become stranded assets or dubious debt-trap endeavours.

Stepping beyond infrastructure, let’s boost the ADF’s presence in the South Pacific, but in a different way. Basing two of the RAN’s 12 new offshore patrol vessels in the South Pacific, where they can work more closely and continually with multiple partner nations, is an obvious initiative. The Australian Army can play a useful role too—working with partner nations’ disciplined forces on local engineering projects and on building surveillance and reconnaissance skills are two examples. A more creative Australian version of the US compacts of free association with the Micronesian states would be a platform for more here.

We might also move quickly and creatively on issues that have been the subject of much debate, consideration and international organisations’ slow-grinding processes and just do some things that we know the people and governments of the South Pacific need and want.

One big, very useful example is to provide safe and cheap power to villages and towns across the South Pacific. The simple economic and logistics benefits from small-scale renewable power systems is compelling in the South Pacific. Alternatives that rely on diesel-powered generators are expensive and require more maintenance than modern renewable systems. Australian companies are ready to do this work—the obstacles are mainly to do with financing cash-flow risks and meeting the accreditation requirements of arcane international institutional rules. If the government can make $3.8 billion in funding available for defence exporters through the Export Finance and Insurance Corporation, surely it can do more to help underwrite any risk for Australian companies doing business in the South Pacific.

Another is getting well-planned resource projects up and running, which will provide revenue to governments, jobs, and benefits to local landowners. Some are ready to go, but need a push by our respective governments to get the final greenlight—Solomons Islands has at least one example.

If we really want to show that we want our South Pacific partners to thrive, we must work with them to mitigate the effects of climate change on their territories, natural resources and societies. Again, some initiatives are already underway. However, we might have to think a little bigger and be willing to consider new approaches.

If small island states like Kiribati and Tuvalu are at risk of going underwater from the effects of climate change, then they need a future. It’s not crazy to wonder where those sand-pumping barges are that have created all those ‘non-military’ artificial structures in the South China Sea. Imagine the impact of one or two of them appearing in the South Pacific, to geo-engineer a future for these states (and a few facilities on the side) as an alternative to evacuation. I recognise the large environmental and engineering issues involved, but given what we’ve seen in the South China Sea, let’s imagine a near-term future where Australia is a partner in well-planned, sustainable geo-engineering solutions that give our Pacific partners certainty about one important thing: they will have a home.

Fisheries resources everywhere are threatened by the massive build-up of plastics in the world’s oceans. So far, the problem has generated some research, and some quixotic efforts by private organisations (like the Ocean Cleanup), but no country has taken a leadership role. If Australia did so, by making a headline investment in early plastic-removal systems and in applied science and research to make rapid advances in new removal techniques, we would gain a massive ‘soft power’ advantage not just in the South Pacific, but internationally. The CSIRO, other research institutions and our offshore engineering community would be able to make strong contributions.

Actually taking leadership would require more than tens of millions of dollars, but if the government can provide $443.3 million to a private foundation for the Great Barrier Reef, then $1 billion could be made available for this kind of international initiative. Controlling plastic waste in the islands themselves would be another active and welcomed step.

So, a combination of simple things that we can do now, symbolic things that deepen the people-to-people partnerships, and some big ‘crazy’ ideas whose time is coming. An agenda that inspires and excites seems much better than one that is couched in the language of risk and competition.