Australia’s South Pacific lessons for the US
4 Oct 2022|

‘A great deal of the history of our world is going to be written in the Indo-Pacific over the coming years and decades. And the Pacific Islands are a critical voice in shaping that future. And that’s why my administration has made it a priority to strengthen our partnership with your countries and with the Pacific Islands Forum.’

— President Joe Biden, US – Pacific Island Country Summit, 29 September 2022

As the United States re-engages with the South Pacific, it can learn from what the islands have taught Australia.

Over 50 years, Australia has built a vast store of hard-won experience in the modern South Pacific, seasoned by mistakes, misses and messes.

Before inspecting the misses, emphasise the positives. Australia is the top aid donor in the islands. Australia offers a security guarantee to the South Pacific, pledging to be the ‘principal security partner’. And Australia is a major economic partner.

The frame or policy floor Australia gives the South Pacific has such a long history it can be assumed as a given. The downside of this given is that those with the power to give can be resented both for the power and for the problems confronted in the giving. Australia efforts for the Pacific family don’t entitle it to dominate the family.

The US well understands the conundrum—the big power reaches for the big responsibilities, but has the biggest room for misses and offers a big target.

One lesson that often troubles Canberra is to retain and build on all its Pacific experience. In my writing about Australia and the South Pacific since the 1970s, an oft-used line is that the islands remember more about us than we remember about them. In similar vein, President Joe Biden’s speech to the Pacific summit lauded the ‘deep history’ the US and the islands share—a nod to how much America has neglected that history.

The US confronts multiples of Australia’s Gulliver problem—the differences of size, perspective and power in tip-toeing around Lilliput.

The islands’ long memory of Australia means that although they like us well enough, we’re often hard work. Our heart might be in the right place, but our attention wanders. Our intentions may be good, but we can be hard of hearing.

What Australia thinks of as straight talking can become loud noise that shuts out important cultural signals—sometimes Gulliver needs just to sit down and shut up. One of Australia’s finest in the South Pacific, the journalist Mary-Louise O’Callaghan, says the ability to sit in silence is the first thing any Australian has to learn.

Another experienced hand, Sandi Logan, laments sins of omission and commission along with a habit of tone-deaf diplomacy: ‘Our default “bang on the table”—our way or the highway—approach to negotiations with the Pacific has, to use an Australianism, bitten us badly on the bum.’

You can see why islanders both smile and sigh when the Australians arrive. The South Pacific pities our inability to sing and they worry about us as a post-Christian society. Generally, though, the Australians will turn up, and they can rely on us to pay for the beer.

Surveying that catalogue, the US can easily out-church Australia, and the Biden administration can claim more climate-change cred.

In terms of misses and messes, the climate war that has blasted through Australian politics for 15 years became the greatest difference between the islands and Canberra.

Pacific officials are equally scathing—in private—about the ‘Pacific solution’ for ‘boat people’ that Australia imposed on Nauru and agreed with Papua New Guinea. Politeness and pragmatism mean that the ‘Pacific solution’ is never publicly raised by the Pacific leaders. But it informs the judgement that Australia’s power can be turned to selfish purposes.

The starting point for the US is that simple piece of advice from Solomon Islands: ‘You have got to show up.’ The Washington summit is a response to that need and a symbol of intent. Now for the work to show that the US can join with friends to deliver for the islands, as promised by the new Partners in the Blue Pacific initiative.

Australia wants more from the US just as the islands need more, but that will ask more from Canberra, as the former diplomat James Batley comments:

Renewed interest in the region by friends and allies is of course welcome but presents another set of challenges. Working in concert, countries like Australia, New Zealand, the US, Japan, France and the UK all theoretically reinforce each other’s efforts. In practice this is not always the case, or not as much as one would hope. National systems can be very different, and the US in particular seems to find it difficult to work at the granular scale required in the Pacific.

Going granular to meet South Pacific requirements feeds into the grand strategy of the competition with China, the linkage the islands fear. Echoing Southeast Asia, the South Pacific pleads that it must not be forced to choose between China and the US.

What’s worse for the islands? Being overlooked, or being treated as geopolitical pawns? ‘Our greatest concern isn’t geopolitics—it’s climate change,’ Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama noted in his first meeting with Australia’s new Labor government.

Trouble is, the geopolitics can touch everything. See that in one of the major development efforts the US has already joined in the region.

In 2018, the US, Japan, Australia and New Zealand announced the Papua New Guinea Electrification Partnership to connect 70% of PNG’s population to electricity by 2030. As of 2020, only 15% of Papua New Guineans have access to the national grid.

With plenty of help from Chinese technology and projects, however, a lot of Papua New Guineans are doing it for themselves, with up to 60% of people getting a solar product.

How PNG will electrify has become another ‘point of competition’ with China—both ‘lucrative and conflict-ridden’. The Harvard International Review reports that ‘the nature of the foreign involvement in electrical development will largely influence whether China or Western nations can consolidate influence in PNG’. Power politics, indeed.

The Australian experience tells the US that it must turn up in the South Pacific and help deliver a better life for islanders. Biden’s summit speech embraced those imperatives. He didn’t once mention China, but he dwelt on geopolitics, devoting the final portion of his speech to the war in Ukraine and Russia’s flagrant ‘imperial ambitions’.

The leaders of the South Pacific heard that the US is back. But, ready or not, so is great-power competition.