Australia’s 2016 Defence White Paper states that it’s second Strategic Defence Interest is ‘a secure nearer region, encompassing maritime Southeast Asia and the South Pacific’ (3:68), which includes Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste and the Pacific Island countries. So what does the White Paper reveal about Australia’s strategic interests in the South Pacific?
Well, in short, nothing that different than the previous two White Papers. The 2016 White Paper differs little from the 2013 and 2009 iterations on matters of the South Pacific. The same risks are articulated in the same language. The single major difference between the Turnbull, Gillard and Rudd White Papers is the defence build-up as outlined in the 2016 White Paper and how it will potentially impact the Pacific.
However, the White Paper is revealing for its three explicit messages about Australia’s view of the Pacific. Those are: Australia as the principal security partner in the region; state fragility and instability as a source of threat to Australia; and external actors taking advantage of fragility and instability and challenging Australia’s interests. However, those three themes are variations on leitmotifs found throughout earlier White Papers and the broader Australian narrative about its immediate neighbourhood. It is worth examining these messages in greater detail.
First, although the 2016 White Paper groups the South Pacific with maritime Southeast Asia, the language is starkly different.. In outlining Australia’s strategic objectives in the South Pacific, the White Paper states that Australia ‘must play a leadership role in our immediate neighbourhood’ (1:16) and will ‘continue to seek to be the principal security partner’ (3:21). By contrast, Australia has no such pretensions in Southeast Asia. In acknowledging the threat posed by external actors with divergent interests, it appears that Canberra isn’t taking for granted longstanding assumptions about Australian pre-eminence in the Pacific region.
Second, the White Paper’s primary concern about Australia’s immediate neighbourhood is of state fragility and instability. The White Paper lists six key drivers which will shape Australia’s security environment to 2035, citing potential state fragility in the Pacific fuelled by uneven economic growth, crime, political instability, ethnic tensions, demographic challenges, governance capacity and climate change. Despite several variations on that theme, there’s no actual analysis of those conflict triggers. Instability in the neighbourhood is viewed solely in terms of risk and response. A one-liner that Pacific countries could benefit economically from Southeast Asian countries as well as harness the Pacific’s natural resources to support economic development is quickly dismissed in the face of what would appear to be overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The challenges, the White Paper would have us believe, are simply too great.
For example, the inclusion of climate change as a cause of state fragility and instability seeks to link global warming and security. However, as Nic Maclellan rightly notes, the White Paper fails to engage with the many ways climate change is transforming geopolitics in our region, namely, the way environmental factors interact with social, economic and security challenges.
Third, the White Paper argues that instability could have strategic consequences for Australia should it lead to ‘increasing influence by actors from outside the region with interests inimical to ours’ (2:35). Moreover, the White Paper states that Australia can’t be secure if the Pacific Island countries become a source of threat to Australia in the form of a foreign military power seeking influence in ways that could ‘challenge the security of our maritime approaches or transnational crime targeting Australian interests’ (3:7).
As Defence White Papers don’t exist in a vacuum, how will the other government agencies engaged in the Pacific meet the challenges outlined above? The White Paper refers broadly to Australian assistance in the areas of national resilience, defence cooperation, aid, policing and building regional organisations as crucial to prevent instability.
It drills down to specifics in the context of deepening its security partnerships, such as the Defence Cooperation Program, the cornerstone of which is the Pacific Maritime Security Program, and increased plans to strengthen military forces in PNG, Tonga and Fiji. Acknowledgement is also made of the need for cooperation with Pacific Island countries to conduct humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and security or stabilisation operations, such as those in Bougainville and the Solomon Islands.
While there’s little in this White Paper that differs from its predecessors, the language is more aggressive which matches the overall threat and balancing narrative of the White Paper . It identifies the potential for external actors to expand their influence in the region, including through enhanced security ties. This is a clear nod to the growing influence of China in the Pacific, and more recently Russia, which has raised the spectre of geopolitical tensions and the possibility Australia could lose its strategic advantage in the neighbourhood. The response is equally clear. Alongside strengthening the ability of Pacific Island countries to build their resilience to natural disasters and to manage internal, transnational and border security challenges (including natural resource protection), Australia will be working to limit the influence of any actor from outside the region with divergent interests.
So does a more defence-oriented Australia mean a militarised Pacific? According to the White Paper, it will. This includes a more regular surface and airborne Australian maritime presence as a consequence of increased participation in multinational exercises; enhanced maritime forces and amphibious capability resulting in greater responsiveness and flexibility; the more expansive Pacific Maritime Security Program which includes enhanced aerial surveillance and support for the regional security architecture; and greater coordination and burden-sharing with New Zealand, France, the US and Japan on maritime security and disaster relief. Underpinning that is a push to develop a shared maritime domain awareness across the Pacific.
Given the tenor of this White Paper, its focus isn’t surprising. Australia’s right to be concerned about the strains on governance—and government—in some Pacific Island countries. It correctly highlights the ever-growing threat posed by transnational crime and the increasing likelihood of HADR operations. And yes, the geopolitics of the immediate neighbourhood have shifted and Australia’s position as the principle security partner of Pacific Island nations isn’t necessarily guaranteed. The question now is will Australia be able to strengthen its relationships with Pacific Island countries in order to reassert its position in the region and ensure its ongoing strategic objectives.