Three realities for the Pacific family and Australia’s step-up agenda
29 May 2019|

Prime Minister Scott Morrison is following through on his commitments to Pacific leaders announced around last year’s APEC meeting, and packaged as Australia’s ‘Pacific step-up’. It’s great that his first visit overseas is to Solomon Islands, because walking the talk matters in the Pacific.

On top of this, his new ministry announced on the weekend includes the promotion of Alex Hawke to the double-hatted role of minister for international development and assistant defence minister.

That’s a smart recognition of how the world works—security and economic development are intermingled issues, not separate activities. So it makes sense for a minister whose job is working with Australia’s Pacific partners to also have a role in Australia’s security and defence policy and relationships.

This puts the Morrison government in a strong position to be sincere and open in its engagement with the rest of the Pacific family—whether New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Fiji or the other Pacific Island Forum members. To do that, though, government ministers and officials will need to say some things publicly in the Pacific that they have, until now, been reluctant to say here at home.

His visit to the newly elected Solomon Islands PM Manasseh Sogavare gives Morrison a place to try out the foundations of his government’s approach over the next three years. He could start by grounding it in three simple realities.

The first Pacific reality is shared aspiration: Australia, along with New Zealand, genuinely wants its Pacific neighbours to prosper and succeed as peoples and states. We care about our neighbours because we have a shared future with them.

This is a product of geography, history and connections. As is the case with many families, that history is complicated and—occasionally—tainted. Still, what matters to the people and governments of the Pacific matters to us, in a way that’s simply not true for more distant powers. That’s a unique basis for us to work together.

The second reality is that our Pacific partners have urgent needs, as last year’s Pacific Islands Forum clearly expressed. There are enormous, persistent economic, environmental and social challenges. And there’s the existential human security challenge of climate change, which Pacific island leaders pointedly put at the heart of the 2018 Boe Declaration, saying, ‘We reaffirm that climate change remains the single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and wellbeing of the peoples of the Pacific and our commitment to progress the implementation of the Paris Agreement’.

The new Morrison government, and Alex Hawke in particular, need to show they are listening to and acting on this voice from the Pacific to have credibility in building on the Pacific step-up.

Listening could be given real momentum by Morrison funding a public broadcasting voice for the Pacific. Around $75 million a year would buy a broad two-way channel allowing Australian voices to be heard in the Pacific and Pacific views and voices to feed into internal Australian debates.

And, as well as listening, as Graeme Dobell has observed, they need to craft, communicate and—most importantly—invest in the long-term vision of Pacific states’ economic, social and security integration with Australia and New Zealand, at a pace and in a way that leaders and their societies help determine.

The last Pacific reality that leaders will need to hear from visiting Australian ministers and officials is about the Chinese state’s activities and presence in the Pacific. Insincerity detectors are highly developed in all Pacific Islands Forum member states, so talking points that are all about the positives of Chinese engagement—both in Australia and in the region—just won’t cut the mustard.

There’s an emerging confidence in the Australian debate to speak openly about the negative aspects of how President Xi Jinping’s ruling Chinese Communist Party is using its authoritarian power. This is about the CCP’s use of military power in places like the South China Sea; its use of internal security power in Xinjiang through mass surveillance and arbitrary imprisonment; its use of cyber power in stealing state and company secrets; its isolation and threatening of the 24-million-person democracy of Taiwan with military invasion; and its funded and organised approach to covert interference in the politics of other nations. This is all about the actions and policies of the ruling CCP, not the Chinese economy or society.

Talking with Pacific leaders about this ‘dark side’ of dealing with China will add a note of realism and trust to our work together. And that’s important because small Pacific states are not the objects of altruism by the Chinese state; they are on the receiving end of the same kinds of policies and manoeuvres that Australia is managing and responding to.

And while Australia continues to benefit from mutual trade with the Chinese economy, our government and institutions are finding it necessary to strengthen our ‘national immune system’ to cope with the dark side of the Chinese state, so that our engagement is healthy.

That’s a discussion that our Pacific partners will welcome, as they too will face these same challenges in dealing with the CCP’s use of power—and like us, having company as they do so will be essential.

As in all areas of foreign policy and national security, it will help Australia’s case greatly for this approach to be a bipartisan one. As Anthony Albanese forms his opposition ministry, let’s hope that he too sees the value in being able to engage simply and openly on security and economics with our Pacific partners. A shared view on the three Pacific realities would be a start.