Working with the Pacific island nations to build resilience
12 May 2023| and

Soon after she became foreign minister in May last year, Penny Wong went on a self-described listening tour of the Pacific.

‘I’m very happy to be here again, to listen … to the new government and to the people about your priorities,’ she said in Port Moresby. ‘Papua New Guinea’s a regional leader and … I think we want something very similar. We want a stable, resilient and prosperous Pacific. We want a region in which sovereignty is respected.’

This week’s budget, with its foreign policy boost to regional capacity building for cyber and policing, represents some practical responses to that listening. Taken together with the recent defence strategic review and the managed leak of the future capability plan for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Australia is moving the conversation beyond foreign aid.

Rather than providing for the Pacific, we need to be working with them: sharing expertise, learning from each other, and building regional resilience—resilience being equally important for the Pacific island countries as it is to Australia.

With that in mind, the budget contains some careful and canny targeting, with measures that achieve the dual purposes of meeting regional priorities while also, importantly, addressing Australia’s own needs—a neighbourhood which is more stable, more secure and more open.

In parallel, there is an increasing focus on ‘statecraft’, through which we marshal our full national power to strengthen our overseas relationships and contribute to regional stability.

Many observers in the aid community have, not surprisingly, argued that there should have been a bigger hike to overseas development assistance. Fine, that’s their job. No doubt, Australia’s development program is an important tool in its statecraft efforts at $1.43 billion next financial year.

But the enhancement of diplomatic capability will do more for the region. It will, over time, increase public confidence that the aid program and money spent on other countries is in Australia’s interests and strengthens our security as well as those of our partners.

Budget measures such as those we saw this week ensure that instead of just saying we are the partner of choice for the Pacific, we are actually offering practical support that provides alternatives to that offered by Beijing and others who don’t have the region’s interests as their priority.

The pressing need for the boost to diplomacy and practical capacity building, rather than simply more aid money, was highlighted by a future capability plan for DFAT.

The internal review found that Australian diplomacy was dangerously under-resourced and the overseas diplomatic network overstretched to the point of ineffectiveness. The foreword by the highly respected Allan Gyngell—who passed away this month—captures the idea of ‘statecraft’ as the art of government, describing all the elements and qualities that determine the capacity of a state to succeed and thrive.

‘Australia will need a strong economy, a capable defence force, well-structured governing institutions, and a resilient population if it is to preserve a competitive edge in the emerging world. It will also need an effective foreign policy and service,’ Gyngell wrote.

The importance of strong foreign policy and diplomacy has also been advocated by the defence establishment, which has been doing some heavy lifting in Australia’s Pacific relationship. Its Pacific outreach, and the Defence Department’s approach to using people-to-people connections has helped move us beyond providing aid to building partnerships and capability.

Notably, the defence review makes clear that the security of our Pacific island neighbours is intrinsically linked to our own, that their internal stability is important for our region’s cohesion, and that their own defence and security capabilities keep our region safe. It states that it is through DFAT that there should be a ‘strategically directed whole-of-government statecraft effort in the Indo-Pacific’.

And that’s where the budget story picks up. The budget’s attention to strategic communications will be welcome to security and foreign policy analysts who have been watching Beijing gain an upper hand in influencing many capitals in the Pacific and Southeast Asia.

The budget’s allocation of $80 million to boost DFAT’s public diplomacy and strategic communications capability is an important investment by government in projecting the informational element of Australian statecraft and countering disinformation by revisionist states.

It is an area in which ASPI has been heavily involved, detailing for instance how Beijing has used its propaganda and disinformation capabilities to push false narratives in support of Chinese Communist Party objectives such as undermining Solomon Islands’ relationships with Australia and the United States.

Similarly welcome will be cyber capacity building for the region which, as the DFAT budget notes, is experiencing growing malicious cyber activity. Such support will enhance our reputation as a trusted partner.

‘In response to increasing requests for support from Pacific island countries, DFAT will enhance and focus our cyber capacity building and expand our crisis response capabilities, under the leadership of the Ambassador for Cyber Affairs and Critical Technology,’ the budget papers state.

Similarly, with security cooperation, the budget includes an increase to Australian Federal Police partnerships in the Pacific with a view to supporting local law enforcement and criminal justice initiatives.

Then there are measures for strengthening the Pacific Islands Forum, expanding the Pacific Labour Mobility Scheme, strengthening climate resilience in the region, investing in health, water, sanitation and hygiene, education and social protection, empowering women and girls, and people with disabilities.

In the DFAT review’s foreword, Gyngell wrote that foreign policy, rather than a reaction to external events, was ‘the purposeful way the state marshals and leverages the resources available to it to achieve its goals.’

Crucially, there is growing complementarity between foreign and defence policy, which have so often been viewed as in competition. They are, in reality, two sides of the same coin that need to be aligned towards the same objectives—pursuing our interests in coordination with partners and safeguarding our sovereignty.

It is a theme that is being increasingly grasped in Canberra and reflected in major policy statements. As the defence strategic review put it: ‘National Defence must be part of a broader national strategy of whole-of-government coordinated and focused statecraft and diplomacy in our region. This approach requires much more active Australian statecraft that works to support the maintenance of a regional balance of power in the Indo-Pacific.’

The approach of properly harnessing our national power—diplomacy, defence, security, intelligence and economic power—and applying it to shape and influence our region in our national interest, has begun to be reflected in some of the budget measures we saw this week. That is a welcome start to what will need be a committed effort in the years and decades ahead.