21 August 2019
Last week’s meeting of Pacific leaders in Tuvalu was supposed to advance Scott Morrison’s effort to improve ties with Australia’s neighbours. Instead, the 2019 Pacific Islands Forum will be remembered as the moment when Morrison’s Pacific “step-up” went backwards.
One measure of the shift can be seen in the response of Fiji’s prime minister, Frank Bainimarama. In May, after Morrison won the election, Bainimarama sent him a warm congratulations and welcomed “a momentous new partnership for the Pacific”. On Saturday, after the summit in Tuvalu, Bainimarama said he had changed his mind about Morrison. “[He] was here only to make sure that the Australian policies were upheld by the Pacific island nations,” Bainimarama told The Guardian.
Morrison was never going to meet the main demand of his Pacific counterparts for greater Australian action on climate change. He had no intention of placing tough limits on Australian polluters; nor would he back a ban on new coalmines, a position endorsed by Labor. But Morrison believed he could water down a final declaration at the forum and soothe tensions by offering cash and depicting the Pacific states, including Australia, as a family. He failed, spectacularly, and exposed the gaping flaw in his Pacific step-up.
The Pacific states will not budge. They worry much more deeply about the threat they face from climate change than Australia does about the threat it faces – from China’s creeping influence. But Morrison cannot see this. He is a climate agnostic from a nation in which climate change is not viewed as a scientific phenomenon but as an outlet for the rough-and-tumble of political debate.
The prime minister’s demonstration of commitment to the Pacific, including increased funding and friendly visits to four states this year, has been well received. But the Pacific’s climate concern is existential. They fear annihilation. So, Morrison’s unwillingness to compromise, which is partly the result of his party’s internal politics, indicates the hollowness of his central appeal to Pacific states – that Australia is part of the Pacific family. Instead, the Tuvalu forum demonstrated that the relationship is transactional, and that the Pacific step-up is aimed at countering China’s growing influence rather than pursuing a broader regional vision. In that sense, it was a diplomatic failure. It suggested that Australia’s ties to its neighbours are thin, and its claim to be a Pacific nation is weak. And if Australia’s Pacific relations depend on funding, it will ultimately be outbid by China, which has much deeper pockets.
Morrison’s intransigence led to several calls for Australia to be ousted from the forum, despite being a founding member in 1971. These calls came from countries such as Tuvalu, which joined in 1978; others, such as Fiji and Samoa, suggested that China may prove a preferable partner to Australia. Former Kiribati President Anote Tong told ABC News: “It’s really about the lesser of two evils, I guess. And at the moment Australia is coming up as the worst of the two evils.”
After his return from Tuvalu, Morrison was asked about the tense state of Australia’s Pacific ties. “Regardless of whatever issues we have to work through,” he responded, “our Pacific family knows that Australia will always be for them.” But for Pacific nations the climate issue is non-negotiable. Morrison has stepped up, and may improve ties around the neighbourhood, but the forum in Tuvalu showed that his policy has limits. It indicated that Australia has no presumptive claim to be the trusted partner of its Pacific neighbours.