The Gulliver dilemma: Australia and South Pacific security
12 Apr 2021|

‘As one of many Pacific Island nations, Australia is historically and indelibly linked to its neighbours in the region. Our shared history of endurance and mutual assistance during times of major international conflict, natural disaster, climate change and pandemic has forged strong links between Pacific Island neighbours which go beyond statehood and diplomacy.’

Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, Inquiry into Australia’s defence relationships with Pacific island nations, March 2021

‘With limited government reach and resources, but strong subsistence and traditional communities, cultural integrity and traditional ways remain key to the Pacific security agenda.’

Meg Keen, ‘Security through a Pacific lens’, Development Bulletin, no. 82: ‘Perspectives on Pacific security: future currents’, February 2021

Australia tiptoes around the South Pacific, just as Gulliver stepped carefully around the fictional South Seas land of Lilliput.

When Jonathan Swift’s giant washed ashore, the six-inch-tall islanders couldn’t bind Gulliver, and their hundred arrows merely pricked his hand.

Here was a security predicament defined by differences in size, perspective and power.

The tiny Lilliputians couldn’t think of a way to kill Gulliver, so they made him useful. Likewise, Australia is too big for the South Pacific to ignore—and sometimes the giant gets it right, despite those big feet.

The government’s four-year-old Pacific ‘step-up’ means the Gulliver effect is getting lots of fresh thought.

Two meditations on Australia’s role in island security have just arrived, from federal parliament and the Australian National University.

Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, has released its report on defence relations with Pacific island nations. Three other committee reports will soon follow on strengthening relationships with the region, trade and investment with the islands, and the human rights of women and girls in the Pacific. These efforts build on a December 2020 report on the impact of the pandemic on foreign policy and April 2019 report on aid to the Indo-Pacific.

Across the lake from parliament, at the ANU, a special issue of the Development Bulletin, titled ‘Perspectives on Pacific security: future currents’, produced by the Development Studies Network in collaboration the Australian Pacific Security College, marks the first year of the college’s existence (another product of the step-up).

Both embrace a broad definition of security, working from the Pacific Islands Forum’s Boe declaration on regional security.

The joint committee’s traditional statement about Australia’s role—in and of region—is followed by an equally traditional list of ‘existential challenges, including domestic security instability, climate change and geopolitical rivalries’.

The parliamentary report is grounded in Canberra’s conception of the responsibilities it wants to shoulder and the regional leadership it seeks. As ever, Australia’s offer to lead bumps into how much buy-in or followership the islands will give (the need for ‘partnership’ gets 90 mentions in the report’s 75 pages).

The independence of the island states and the Gulliver factor cause some hesitancy. The report’s second paragraph modestly describes Australia as a ‘regional middle power’ while offering to perform lots of roles:

From fisheries management, protection and surveillance, to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, intelligence collection and sharing, climate change and the global pandemic, Australia’s defence organisation stands ready to play its part in the Pacific Step-up.

The bureaucratic semantics of the step-up mean Canberra concedes no past failure or need for change; instead, we’re going to do much more of what we’re already doing. Embracing this more-of-the-same-but-better approach, the parliamentary committee’s language is about the need to ‘improve’, ‘increase’, ‘respond’ and ‘integrate’. Recommendations include ‘an increase in frequency and intensity of existing surveillance operations’ and increased intelligence sharing.

The one new thought offered as a ‘could’ recommendation is a Pacific islands regiment for the ‘increased and enhanced integration of Australian, Pacific Island and other military forces’.

The Pacific regiment, using equipment, training and facilities supplied by Australia and New Zealand, could do UN work as well as ‘security and stabilisation operations within the island states at the behest of the Pacific Islands Forum’. An earlier version of the regiment idea was offered by ASPI’s Anthony Bergin in 2019 and backed by Fiji’s defence minister. Bergin argued that recruiting islanders into the Australian Defence Force would require only a change of policy, not law.

The ANU’s varied and vigorous perspectives on the Pacific islands’ ‘unique and urgent security needs’ cover geopolitics, governance, food and livelihood, human health and gender, cities, cyber and media (the word ‘security’ occurs 1,532 times in 173 pages).

Meg Keen explains the evolution and expansion of island thinking on security. There’s vintage Steven Ratuva on what Covid-19 means for social solidarity in island communities. New Zealand’s ‘Pacific reset’ gets a fine Anna Powles treatment, a sharper version than the New Zealand government’s submission to the parliamentary inquiry.

Denghua Zhang writes that China’s security focus in the South Pacific is ‘limited in scope and depth’ (none of the People’s Liberation Army’s 130 military attaché offices overseas are in the Pacific). But China’s great-power ambition and ‘the rapid escalation of the US–China rivalry’ are ‘likely to stimulate [the] PLA to develop more substantial security cooperation with Pacific islands’.

One of Oz diplomacy’s finest Pacific hands, James Batley, does nuanced duty on the Gulliver effect and the changed ‘tone’ of the step-up. Canberra isn’t just responding to China, Batley writes, but acting on ‘long-standing’ Oz anxieties about the South Pacific. We were fussing and fretting long before China arrived.

Many island countries, though, ‘do not share Australia’s geostrategic outlook or anxieties’. Noisy headlines about disagreements and tensions are a staple, Batley says, and aren’t definitive indicators of Australia’s declining influence. The Boe declaration provides a ‘common language and vocabulary’ that Australia now routinely uses in its extensive dealings in the region. Canberra has convening power and brings cash and people.

Batley’s conclusion gives a fine summary of the view from both sides of Canberra’s lake:

In the contemporary cliché, the Pacific region is clearly more crowded and contested. It can’t be denied that significant gaps exist between Australian and Pacific Islands’ understandings of and approaches to security in the region. Differences on climate change in particular remain serious … Australia has shown repeatedly that it is able to draw on its assets in the region to protect and to prosecute its security interests, and that those assets are being enhanced through new initiatives.

Scott Morrison’s vision of Australia belonging to the ‘Pacific family’ worries wonks (is it true?) and bureaucrats (what more must we do for the family?).

‘Family’, I submit, is goddam Gulliver genius: Australia may be big and clumsy, but it belongs.