Wong leads new era of engagement with Pacific island states

Pacific island countries may halt the use of Australian-donated patrol boats with defects including cracking in the coupling between the engine and the gearbox, and a fault in the vessels’ exhaust system. It’s a blow to the $2.1 billion maritime program that’s the centrepiece of our security assistance to the region. In fairness, all vessels have teething issues. It would be remarkable if there weren’t any problems with the Guardian-class boats.

Despite this setback, we judge that there’s now more grounds for optimism that Australia can at least slow China’s expansion in our near abroad. The new foreign minister, Penny Wong, deserves much of the credit; in just four weeks she has visited Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and Solomon Islands. Australia has recently joined with the US, UK, New Zealand and Japan to create Partners in the Blue Pacific to provide assistance to the small islands and step up coordinated efforts to counter Chinese initiatives.

The previous government largely left engagement with the region to a junior minister. That was a source of irritation, especially in the most powerful regional countries, Papua New Guinea and Fiji. It’s not insignificant that the lion’s share of China’s engagement with the Pacific is undertaken by its foreign minister, Wang Yi.

It’s inevitable that Wong will allocate some of her responsibility for regional engagement to Pacific and International Development Minister Pat Conroy. But it won’t have escaped her notice, or that of the prime minister, that she’s been extremely well received by Pacific island leaders. She’s shown them a level of respect that wasn’t evident in recent years.

The Albanese government is now developing a series of policies that should appeal to our Pacific neighbours; the focus appears to be shifting more to working with the region to shape global discussions on climate change and greater people engagement.

One area that offers opportunities to greatly enhance our people engagement in a way that China can’t hope to match is sport. It’s true that China is active in building sporting infrastructure in the region, most prominently Solomon Islands’ 2023 Pacific Games stadium. But we should be investing more heavily to strengthen existing programs in elite sporting partnerships and community sport in the Pacific.

Another area to develop, largely neglected by the former government, is engaging with the Christian churches in the region. Christian church membership in Australia is in serious decline. But Christianity is flourishing in most island countries, especially the Pentecostal churches. Most of our regional neighbours lack serious capacity in healthcare, school education and vocational training. A number of Australian churches already have a strong presence in these sectors in the region. But with Australian government support they could do much more.

There needs to be a higher priority given to Australian business through support to industry groups such as the Australia–Papua New Guinea Business Council. China has capitalised very effectively on the decline in Australian business activity in the Pacific in some key sectors.

With Australian banks withdrawing or downsizing in the Pacific, Chinese banks and financial institutions are doing the very opposite, including through significant loan support for the island states’ small-business sectors. Many Pacific island countries are successfully growing small business in both urban and rural communities. But they’re going to need greater access to finance and training, and Australia is better placed than China to provide both.

Finally, Australia’s defence investment program will require 20,000 more uniformed personnel to operate the capabilities being acquired. With the Australian Defence Force averaging net annual growth of only 300 people, the ADF has just put out an urgent call to recruit young Australians. We should be inviting Pacific islanders into our military for a three- to four-year period. The concept would be hugely popular in the islands and develop powerful people-to-people links with our military that would last a lifetime.

There’s no greater bonding exper­ience than a recruit course ­followed by active military service. Citizenship might even be offer­ed on completion of service. Having Pacific islanders being part of the delivery of Australian programs to the island states, whether training, aid or disaster relief, will make that engagement much more effective for us all. Military service is a unique offer we can make that China can’t and won’t.