It’s time for Australia to offer the South Pacific what Beijing can’t
26 May 2022|

The new Australian government has thought hard about the South Pacific and is already repairing the gap between Australian policy and South Pacific nations’ core issue of climate change. Foreign Minister Penny Wong has already provided this message and is about to do the other key thing Labor promised during the election campaign: turn up in person and engage with Pacific leaders.

The problem is that Beijing is moving faster and bigger in the South Pacific than Canberra may have expected and isn’t waiting to see what the Albanese government does.

The Sogavare–Beijing security pact has highly adverse strategic implications for Australia and the region, because it is set to bring the aggressive Chinese military—including its navy—into our near neighbourhood as a matter of routine. Making the South Pacific an arena of military tension like the South China Sea is a disturbing implication Solomons PM Manasseh Sogavare is bringing to everyone in our region.

But China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, has just put a much larger, nastier deal on the table for 10 Pacific states to sign up to on his visit to the region that’s happening in parallel to Wong’s. He’s using his unprecedented trip to the Pacific to put forward a region-wide deal with a five-year action plan. China’s plan gets right to the heart of how Pacific states are governed and controlled, and he would cement Chinese technologies and Chinese security agencies into the daily experiences of Pacific people.

It reportedly covers policing, security and communications cooperation, and involves China giving Pacific governments cybersecurity tools, police training and digital surveillance and communications systems to power their governments, economies and security regimes. As a further enticement, Beijing is also offering a China–Pacific islands free-trade agreement.

Wang’s eight-country Pacific visit and the proposed deal show the scale and speed of Beijing’s ambitions in the South Pacific. It’s a dystopian future the Chinese Communist Party is offering the people of the region. Backed by seemingly free but opaque concessional loans and packaged with lots of schmoozing and cash for Pacific political figures (as we’ve already seen in Solomon Islands), it’s got a gravitational attraction that audited investment and aid spending from Australia doesn’t.

The key judgement Pacific leaders must make is whether the highly intrusive authoritarian presence Beijing brings is worth the cash.

Leaders, like Sogavare, who sign their countries up to these deals risk separating themselves from their people. That’s what bringing Chinese state surveillance tools and Chinese authoritarian security practices and personnel into their communities will mean.

Hong Kong is a place leaders can look at to see security and surveillance assistance from Beijing in action. That once vibrant international city has become a silenced, controlled place just like any other city on the Chinese mainland. Sri Lanka shows the damage to an already vulnerable economy and political system from an over-indulgence in concessional loans.

Given the strategic ambition, speed and scale we are seeing from Beijing in our near neighbourhood, what Australia is offering in contrast is not enough. If we believe that, once we get the climate change policy right, just doing a bit more of what we’ve been doing for years will give us different results, we need to think again. What we have been doing has led us here.

And beyond climate change, the Labor government’s Pacific policy looks eerily similar to what former PM Scott Morrison was doing with his Pacific step-up—with close connections to the Gillard and Rudd government policies before that. In fact, for all the domestic noise about Morrison as an individual, he had invested a lot of personal time and political capital in his own engagement with Pacific leaders. Wong will be welcomed by Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama in Fiji. That’s because of who she is and what her government is offering, but it also builds on the relationship Morrison worked to develop in some important ways.

In both the South Pacific and Southeast Asia, we’ll see the limits of just doing a little more of the same—aid and engagement. Alignment with South Pacific governments and populations on climate change is a plus and is important given the rolling natural disasters we and our region are already facing. But we need a bigger imagination of a shared region with our Pacific neighbours, not incremental expansion of existing schemes like seasonal workers, limited extra numbers of permanent visas and student programs, and more defence training.

We don’t need to compete directly with Beijing on cash, corruption and schmoozing. We are already the largest aid provider to the Pacific and we can connect in a unique, invaluable way with our Pacific neighbours. That’s possible if our offer and ambition for our future with Pacific island states is a form of the hugely successful Closer Economic Relations and visa-free work and travel framework we have built between Australia and New Zealand.

The model between two proudly sovereign states of Australia and New Zealand is powerfully attractive. It has deepened economic, social, political and sporting connections between us and driven our prosperity and our security. Broadening this deal to the South Pacific can do the same for us and for our near neighbours.

Opening up Australia’s economy and labour market to South Pacific people through this big new deal will matter much more than any amount of aid money and any amount of rapidly built large infrastructure and debt from our friends in Beijing.

Developing, negotiating and delivering such an initiative will take all the skills Wong possesses and the buy-in of South Pacific leaders and people, along with the wider cabinet, parliament and public here in Australia. It’ll also take public clarity from our political leaders and parliament on the downsides for our near region from entanglement with an authoritarian Chinese state.

There is a strategic choice for Pacific leaders as they meet with State Councillor Wang and see lots more of Australian leaders. To say there’s not is dishonest. But the choice is between a dystopian future for their peoples by entangling their governments and societies into China’s overbearing and intrusive authoritarian security machinery, or forging a much more direct and integrated future with Australia and New Zealand that delivers prosperity and supports the freedoms that Pacific island peoples value.

The first step is our own government having the wisdom, ambition and urgency to build on—but go well beyond—the plan we have right now.