5 September 2018
Unlike Jacinda Ardern, who left her eleven-week-old baby at home to make her first foreign trip as a mother, Scott Morrison chose not to attend this week’s Pacific Islands Forum in Nauru. Instead, Morrison will be represented by Marise Payne, the foreign minister, who insisted the prime minister’s absence from the eighteen-nation summit was not a snub.
Morrison’s absence may not offend the attending leaders, who are used to Australian truancy, but it represents a missed opportunity at a time when the nation’s Pacific interests are becoming increasingly contested.
Australia is the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the forum and, in many ways, has most to gain from maintaining close ties with its member states. These are mostly small nations – a drive around Nauru’s circumference takes half an hour – but they can assist larger ones in various ways, including helping to ensure that the region’s maritime and trade routes remain secure.
In recent months, there have been numerous reports about China’s efforts to gain a foothold in the Pacific. According to a report last week in The Australian, this includes plans to build a port on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island, which, long before its recent sorry history, was known as the site of naval bases for a series of powers in the region, such as Australia, Japan and the United States. Chinese aid in the Pacific has increased – though it remains small compared with Australia’s – and there are concerns its substantial loans to small nations could leave them in a debt trap.
Beijing’s precise intentions in the Pacific remain unclear, but Xi Jinping – unlike Morrison, and Donald Trump, who last Friday cancelled plans to attend Asia’s two main annual summits later this year – does not skip meetings. Xi, unlike Trump, is attending the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Papua New Guinea in November, and he is arriving early. Before the summit, he plans to meet with Pacific island leaders who support it in its game of chequebook diplomacy against Taiwan. Xi will meet with all those who recognise the “One China” policy and have refused to establish diplomatic ties with Taiwan.
Morrison, if he were in Nauru, could discuss Xi’s mini summit with Pacific leaders, as well as the media reports about the port on Manus Island and another in Vanuatu and various China-funded projects in Fiji and Samoa. He could seek to understand recent moves by other nations, including Russia, India and Indonesia, to deepen ties or increase their influence in the Pacific. And he could try to understand the concerns of the Pacific states, which are less troubled by foreign meddling in the region than by issues such as the existential risk to low-lying islands posed by climate change.
Summits, of course, are easy to skip. They often produce anodyne declarations, which have been largely worked out beforehand. Tony Abbott missed two of the three forum meetings during his stint as leader; Malcolm Turnbull attended both, in 2016 and 2017, and had planned to go this week.
Attending the forum and other regional summits demonstrates a commitment to international cooperation and provides an opportunity to meet individually with a wide range of foreign leaders. Ardern could not travel to Nauru with her baby – who was too young to be vaccinated – and was criticised for incurring extra public expense to travel on an air-force jet to Nauru for only a day. Defending her decision, Ardern pointed out that no New Zealand prime minister had missed the Pacific summit, except during election campaigns, since the forum was founded in 1971. “The other option was for me not attend at all but, given the importance that we place on the relationships with the Pacific Islands in the reset, that equally didn’t feel like an option,” she said.
Ardern’s government recently committed to boosting aid by NZ$714 million over four years, mostly to South Pacific nations, as part of this policy “reset”. There are calls for Australia to undergo a similar revamp. The government has made a start in recent months. It boosted its Pacific aid funding, and Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop held various meetings with Pacific leaders.
As shadow immigration minister, Morrison once said he would “take any early opportunity” to visit Nauru to discuss his plan to indefinitely detain asylum seekers there. He famously made an Ardern-style lightning trip to the island during the 2010 election campaign to demonstrate his commitment to this scheme, which – aside from causing untold pain and being a national disgrace – has cost more than double China’s entire Pacific aid spending since 2011.
Morrison is, perhaps understandably, preoccupied with local politics, but securing Australia’s ties with the Pacific is in the nation’s domestic interest. He should continue the move towards a Pacific reset. But first he will have to show up.