Big yellow taxi departs South Pacific
11 Jun 2019|

Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till it’s gone 

— Joni Mitchell, ‘Big Yellow Taxi’

The international system is having a Big Yellow Taxi moment, as so elegantly described by Joni Mitchell.

We’re confronting what’s gone and what’s coming instead. In the South Pacific, that covers everything from climate change to regional order.

Professor Joni’s strategic insight was my metaphor for the panel discussing three ASPI reports: on Papua New Guinea, China’s soft power in the islands, and Australia’s Pacific pivot.

Stephanie Copus-Campbell spoke first on the PNG–Australia development partnership, calling for a rethink and a redesign. This was policy meets lived experience, delivered with vivid energy: ‘Papua New Guinea is a fascinating, beautiful country with so many incredible people. It’s one of only a small number of countries which has transitioned from being colonised to independence peacefully and with a democracy intact.’

It’s natural to go vivid when talking about PNG.

But the development indicators Copus-Campbell lists for PNG are also vivid in worrying ways. Time for transformation that shifts beyond aid projects to partnership: ‘I dislike the word “aid”. It sets up a power dynamic between a donor and recipient and can rob one actor in this dynamic of a voice and lead to misinformed approaches and poor ownership of outcomes.’

The partnership must align Australia’s abiding interests in the region with what PNG needs and decides. As Copus-Campbell concludes:

Imagine if 80% of the Australian population woke up to no electricity, no running water, no health or education services, and not even a grocery store to buy food. How long would we last? Not long. The people of PNG are incredibly resilient and have a pretty good sense of what they want for their future. That’s a good starting point for all development.

Professor Richard Herr then gave a typically thoughtful account of his study of the yin and yang of Chinese influence in the South Pacific, and China’s emergence as ‘the most prominent new star’ in island affairs.

Herr argues that China’s influence is more about economic clout than soft power: ‘The admiration that Pacific Island states feel for China is genuine. However, on balance, China’s current regional soft power lacks breadth and depth, although it’s still evolving.’

In responding to the China challenge in the region, Australia needs to know the dragon’s limits as well as its capabilities.

And Herr says Australia shouldn’t indulge in too much of a lament about losing regional influence: ‘The argument that Australia somehow neglected the Pacific Islands and allowed Chinese soft-power influence to grow is faulty. It denies the undeniability of China’s increase in power and influence globally over recent decades. This debate has already inflicted some harm on Australia’s soft power in the region by reviving colonialist imagery of possession and dominance.’

The possession/dominance point matters in this complicated discussion of Australia, Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste and the islands—not just a yellow taxi lament about what’s lost but defining the best vehicles for getting to what’s next.

In the gig on my Pacific pivot paper I argued that the yellow cab ain’t taking us back to versions of Oz paternalism/colonialism/imperialism. Nor is this all about competition with China, based on Australia’s abiding strategic denial instinct in the islands.

The strands of destiny, duty, denial and desire mean that Australia’s Pacific conversation is also about ourselves and where we live.

The biggest arguments I’ve had over my paper haven’t been about China’s growing role, but rather the terms of Canberra’s offer to the South Pacific of economic and security integration with Australia and New Zealand.

The New Zealand perspective seems to be that the integration strategy in Australia’s 2017 foreign policy white paper doesn’t show enough understanding of the sovereignty and identity of the islands.

During the Q and A, I had fun arguing that this is a classic kiwi effort at walking both sides of the street. New Zealand identifies as a South Pacific state while also drawing all the benefits of being Australia’s de facto seventh state.

Being integrated with Australia does no harm to New Zealand’s admirable sense of self. The kiwi example, I argue, shows the South Pacific how much more can be achieved through integration.

Another of my comments that got attention is that Prime Minister Scott Morrison is a genius—at least in his embrace and expression of the idea of Australia as part of the ‘Pacific family’. Integration is difficult and detailed policy; family is warm and embracing. Masterful!

Even Australia’s great foe in the South Pacific over the past decade, Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, is happy to embrace Morrison and family, a development that’s as promising as it’s surprising.

One of the great Oz correspondents in the South Pacific, Mary-Louise O’Callaghan, offers an excellent analysis of how religion has linked the Morrison family to the islands:

Veterans over the past couple of decades of many church-related trips to the Pacific (mostly Fiji), the Morrisons, frequently privileged to be house guests of their Pacific Island hosts, are more than familiar with the legendary and very genuine warmth of island hospitality. Such intimate exposure to the ebb and flow of ordinary Pacific life over nearly half a lifetime, also renders Australia’s 30th Prime Minister somewhat unique … Morrison is likely the first prime minister since Federation to bring to the office such personal insight and real affinity for our island neighbours. When Scott Morrison speaks of the Pacific being family he actually means it.

The family imagining offers much for the journey Australia and islands must do together.

Remembering, of course, Professor Joni’s warning in one of her seminal songs of grand strategy:

They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot