17 July 2019
Yesterday, Scott Morrison announced that his first official guest since he won the election will be James Marape, the prime minister of Papua New Guinea. This six-day state visit will be the latest instalment in Morrison’s firm, and occasionally frenzied, commitment to the Coalition’s signature foreign policy – the “Pacific step-up”. Since Malcolm Turnbull initiated the policy in 2016, the government has unveiled a continuous set of ventures across the region. This has included a $2 billion infrastructure fund and plans to open diplomatic posts in every Pacific nation, including Niue, which has a population of 1618.
Since January, Morrison has visited Vanuatu, Fiji and the Solomon Islands, and he will travel to Tuvalu next month for the annual Pacific Islands Forum. The step-up has been one of the most concerted and expensive diplomatic initiatives in recent Australian history. Though the government will not publicly admit it, the policy is intended to combat China’s growing influence and to prevent it setting up a military presence in Australia’s northern reaches. Morrison is pinning his hopes for success on a long-held assumption that Pacific countries see Australia as a “trusted partner”. “We’re a country that very much gets it when it comes to the Pacific,” he said during a press conference on Saturday.
But there is a flaw in Morrison’s approach. During the past five years, as Jenny Hayward-Jones argues in her essay “Cross Purposes” (in the latest issue of Australian Foreign Affairs), Australia and its Pacific neighbours have been drifting apart. The presumption that their interests correspond no longer holds, mainly because they have formed such divergent views of their most immediate threats. Australia fears China, and Pacific states fear climate change. “The Australian government is afraid Pacific islanders don’t appreciate the nature of the security threat the region faces,” she writes. “Pacific islanders are afraid the security threat the region faces will end life as they know it.” Hayward-Jones says that Pacific island countries would likely back Australia over China, but adds that “most do not believe they will have to choose, and are confident they can manage, as Australia does, having a primary economic partner that is not their primary security partner”.
The Coalition has shown little concern for combating climate change. Its inaction has been widely noted across the Pacific, which may make it difficult for Morrison to persuade leaders in the region that, as he has claimed, Australia “very much understands the aspirations of Pacific island nations peoples”.
There is a growing realisation in Canberra – though perhaps not in the cabinet room – that Australia’s approach to climate change is undermining its foreign policy. According to a report earlier this week in The Australian Financial Review, Australia’s defence chief, Angus Campbell, recently admitted to this in a private address at a security forum. “The issue of climate change will influence our long-standing relationship with our Pacific island neighbours,” he reportedly said. “They want us to do more.”
Overall, the step-up has been well received by Pacific leaders, who have welcomed Canberra’s renewed interest. Yet the policy’s goals may ultimately be unachievable. In his essay “In Denial”, Hugh White argues that Canberra will need to accept the new and sobering reality that it can no longer preserve its exclusive sphere of influence in the Pacific – China’s power is proving too great, and the prospect of Australia resisting it too costly. Accepting this would mean a drastic change in outlook and, given the presence of nearby Chinese bases, would compel Australia to overhaul its approach to defence and diplomacy, and perhaps its self-conception as a well-placed, remote island continent.
Clearly, the step-up is most likely to work if it is based on clear thinking about its aims and limitations. This will enable Canberra to see its neighbours as partners, rather than pawns in achieving its security and diplomatic goals. And this, in turn, could lead to ties that are sturdier and that would help push Australia and its island neighbours towards a genuinely shared approach to both threats and opportunities.