Foreign policy white paper 2017: integrating the South Pacific

Reaching beyond the usual language of partnership with the South Pacific, Australia is offering economic and security integration.

The integration policy is a new ideal: not just neighbours, but joined. It’s a complex task for Australia and New Zealand, an important offer that the South Pacific will embrace slowly. Integration must evolve over decades.

The new foreign policy white paper refers to this integrate/integration vision six times in what is an initial but ambitious sketch. Here’s how it’s unveiled:

The Government is delivering a step-change in our engagement with Pacific island countries. This new approach recognises that more ambitious engagement by Australia, including helping to integrate Pacific countries into the Australian and New Zealand economies and our security institutions, is essential to the long-term stability and economic prospects of the Pacific. Our partnership with New Zealand will be central to advancing this agenda.

The South Pacific’s place in the policy statement is significant. Wordage matters, although we’ve always talked a big game in the South Pacific (and haven’t always lived up to the talk). The import of Canberra’s words is the groping towards a 21st-century toolkit to work on neighbourhood issues of ‘fundamental importance to Australia’—the ‘stability and economic progress of Papua New Guinea, other Pacific island countries, and Timor-Leste’.

The white paper gives the Pacific prominence by making the islands one of the five objectives of ‘fundamental importance’ (that phrase again) to Australia’s security and prosperity, and by devoting one of the document’s eight chapters to ‘a shared agenda for security and prosperity’ with PNG, the islands and Timor-Leste.

Stating that Australia recognises the need for new approaches, the Pacific policy proclaims three priorities:

  • promoting economic cooperation and greater integration within the Pacific and also with the Australian and New Zealand economies, including through labour mobility
  • tackling security challenges, with a focus on maritime issues
  • strengthening people-to-people links, skills and leadership.

As a man who helped make Oz Pacific policy for decades, James Batley offers shrewd commentary on its progress, judging: ‘While some aspects of earlier or existing Australian policy towards the region may have been directed towards these ends, the reference to integration as an explicit policy objective marks an important inflection point in Australian policy towards the region.’

Why is it so? Why this important shift? Why now? The answer includes ministerial demand, geopolitical competition, our deep strategic denial instinct, and the law/lore of Canberra. Plus, there’s the reality that the problems confronting the islands are—as always—getting nastier and sharper.

What the minister wants: Julie Bishop has Pacific ambition. She’s done the island trips (26 visits as foreign minister). Her promised step-change is to integration, a policy that should run long after she’s gone.

China: Australia’s strategic denial instinct in the South Pacific is a constant, with a 140-year history (it helped drive federation in 1901). In the 19th century, the slogans were that the French/Germans/Russians were coming. In the 20th century, Japan did invade (Australia’s seminal existential moment), while the Cold War bogey was the Soviet Union. Even Libya had a short season as the South Pacific threat in the 1980s. The external menace always galvanises Oz instincts.

The white paper expresses the fear of the new outsider without naming China, talking of ‘competition for influence and economic opportunities’ straining the capacity to absorb aid, increasing debt and undermining regional coordination.

On a significance-to-noise ratio, China’s danger to the region gets more attention than it merits. Island governments well understand both the problems and the profits to be had from China. Let’s hope that the China–Taiwan detente over diplomatic recognition holds and there’s no return to the fight that destabilised the South Pacific a decade ago.

Australia as principal partner: Over five decades, Australia has expanded its defence and security guarantee to stretch from Timor-Leste through PNG to all of the South Pacific. Last year’s defence white paper promised that Australia would be the South Pacific’s ‘principal security partner’. The integration policy recognises the need for a matching economic and social guarantee.

A bureaucratic champion for the South Pacific: Much has been lost in the ‘merging’ (devouring) of AusAID by DFAT in 2013—an organisational revolution driven by the Coalition government’s crunching of the aid budget. There is, though, one bureaucratic benefit; even much diminished, AusAID inside DFAT can be a stronger, permanent champion for the South Pacific.

Bureaucracy shapes policy in its own image. The merger of the Foreign Affairs and Trade departments 30 years ago shifted culture and beliefs, with the committed multilateralism of the old foreign affair-ies overturned by the deal-making bilateral pragmatism of the trade-ies. Where you stand depends on where you sit: to give one enduring Canberra example, Treasury constantly pushes tax reform ‘for the simple, institutional reason that tax policy still lies’ in Treasury. The South Pacific now has more institutional heft inside DFAT—for the first time, the department has a large cohort who see their career in New Guinea, not New York.

Less than pacific Pacific: The familiar list is as cruel as ever—small economies with big challenges, rapid population growth and stretched governments. Plenty of modern ills are arriving, along with climate change to rev recurring natural disasters.

The South Pacific is a beautiful place with tough problems. Integration is another way for Australia and New Zealand to reach out. The anti-Oz line will be that integration is colonialism redux, a polite term for dominance. The rebuttal will require slow persuasion and consistent delivery. The promise of integration with Australia and New Zealand is the offer of a stronger, richer region—because poor and weak states can’t be truly independent.