Fiji is hosting the annual Pacific Islands Forum leaders’ meeting this week, the first in-person summit since 2019, though not all of the eighteen member states are attending. Kiribati and the Marshall Islands are absent amid concerns that the forum had not adequately addressed the interests of Micronesian countries, which had previously threatened to leave the body over the rules for rotating the secretary-general.
The absence of two Micronesian countries will not be the only source of concern at this year’s meeting. The controversial security agreement that Solomon Islands signed with China in March will be a central item of discussion. Other states will be worried that in seeking to enhance its own security, Honiara has threatened wider regional security.
Due to the region becoming increasingly contested, Pacific island countries decided that it is best that both China and the United States not attend the meeting as dialogue partners. Other dialogue partners like the European Union and Japan have also been excluded to be consistent. The implication is that this year’s meeting requires a strong consensus on a number of critical issues, and member states need to work without distraction.
The last in-person meeting in Tuvalu was notable for a lack of consensus from Australia on climate change in the forum’s communiqué. The new Australian government has signalled that it is willing to be more cooperative on what Pacific island countries consider to be their primary security threat.
Marles in Washington
The Albanese government is continuing its international outreach with defence minister, Richard Marles, travelling to the United States this week. Marles will meet with his US counterpart, Lloyd Austin, as well as members of Congress. Alongside general alliance maintenance, Marles will be seeking concrete objectives for the AUKUS agreement as the Australian government chooses between a US or British design for its new fleet of nuclear-powered submarines.
In an address on Tuesday at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, Marles said that the Indo-Pacific is currently witnessing “a military build-up occurring at a rate unseen since World War II”. Although he didn’t directly mention China’s designs on Taiwan, he highlighted Russia’s willingness to risk conflict, and that the Australia–US alliance was central to “avoiding a catastrophic failure of deterrence” in our region.
Although Marles stressed that the alliance had always transcended partisan politics, Australia must not be naive about how the current turbulence in American domestic politics could reshape the way the US behaves internationally, and what kind of state it is. This has profound implications for Australia’s foreign and defence policies. Marles’ claim that the alliance is built on a shared commitment to democracy is a mantra Australian politicians are accustomed to repeating, but one that is now based more on hope than confidence.
China’s four grievances
Australia’s foreign minister, Penny Wong, and her Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, met on the sidelines of the G20 Foreign Ministers’ summit in Indonesia last week.
During the meeting – the first high-level meeting between Australian and Chinese officials in more than three years – Wang insisted that the breakdown in relations was solely due to Australia’s behaviour. He outlined four themes that could mend the relationship: that Australia develops a “correct understanding of China” and “accumulate positive energy”; that common ground should be sought while recognising difference; that third parties should not be involved – most likely a reference to the competition for influence in the Pacific; and finally, Australia should not ferment negative public opinion of China.
Of these four themes, the only one Australia could find agreeable is seeking common ground while recognising difference. The first and fourth points are subjective perspectives of Beijing’s, while the third conflicts with Australia’s long-standing policy to maintain intimate relationships within the Pacific.
Wang’s approach was reminiscent of the fourteen grievances handed by the Chinese embassy to Nine Media in November 2020 and highlighted the difficulties of maintaining normal relations with authoritarian regimes. An entirely sensible, albeit poorly presented, suggestion by Australia for an investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic – something that could be vital for understanding future pandemics, wherever they originate – was deemed a hostile act by China. What would be standard practice in a liberal democracy is liable to be seen as a threat to legitimacy by the Chinese Communist Party.
From AFA10: FRIENDS, ALLIES AND ENEMIES
A free extract from “Goodbye, America” by Patrick Lawrence
“In March 2020, what the US Defense Department now calls its Indo-Pacific Command asked Congress for slightly more than US$20 billion to cover a six-year expansion of its operations across East Asia. Congress had invited the Pentagon’s request, effectively saying, ‘You need more money. Ask and you shall receive.’ Few questioned this course.
This is all about China, to state the obvious. More to the point, it is about prolonging American primacy in the Pacific as the People’s Republic emerges as a regional and global power. This is a forlorn project by any balanced reckoning. Yes, America will remain a Pacific power. No, it can no longer presume pre-eminence. The compulsion to insist otherwise arises out of longing for the once-was, anxiety in the face of change and an appallingly poor grasp of China’s aspirations and intentions.”CONTINUE READING
A road to rapprochement for Australia–China relations
“Any changes in trade relations will require both Australia and China to manage political and economic disagreements in a measured, productive and respectful way. Rapprochement can start with cooperation in areas of common interest … Australia and China [have] shared interests in a range of trade-related matters such as e-commerce, sustainability and climate change.” Lisa Toohey, Markus Wagner & Weihuan Zhou,East Asia Forum
An alignment with limits – NATO and its partners in the Indo-Pacific
“For NATO’s Indo-Pacific partners, including Australia, a united Euro-Atlantic and willingness to push back against the China–Russia entente is positive … Even so, the task of building a favourable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific, or what Australia’s new foreign minister, Penny Wong, calls a ‘strategic equilibrium’, largely will remain the work of the United States and its close Indo-Pacific partners.” Dominique Fraser,Asia Society
Loss and damage in the Pacific – stepping up Australia’s support under the third pillar of international climate change negotiations
“For many years Australia has supported Pacific countries to address the impact of climate change through development assistance for adaptation activities, humanitarian response, resilience building, and supporting scientific and data analysis … But we are now in territory where humanitarian assistance and Official Development Assistance (ODA) will be insufficient to address the sustained loss and damage to Pacific communities.” Fiona Tarpey,Australian Outlook (AIIA)
The Pacific has a spiralling debt problem – and this is what governments can do about it
“If Pacific island countries are to beat a path towards the sustainable expansion of financial and technical services, while balancing fundamental infrastructure development and institutional reforms, and managing national debt, they will need to work with development partners and multilateral agencies.” Keshmeer Makun,ABC News
For all his nationalism, Abe was a true globalist and statesman
“Abe understood Australia and Japan shared respect for the rule of law and democracy, and for national interests in bolstering the rules-based order … The world is a safer place because Abe knew that it was national strength and deterrence that brought peace and stability.” Bruce Miller,Australian Financial Review
Out next week – Australian Foreign Affairs 15
“If Australia’s primary strategic objective in South-East Asia is to build coalitions against China, it will be disappointed.” ALLAN GYNGELL
The fifteenth issue of Australian Foreign Affairs examines the challenges confronting South-East Asia as it finds itself at the epicentre of the rivalry between the United States and China.
Our Unstable Neighbourhood looks at the fragile state of democracy and the growing threat of instability in the region, as well as the risks for Australia as it navigates ties with nations which have vastly differing interests and outlooks.PRE-order your copy today
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The Shortest History of Greece
How has Greece shaped the world we live in today, and what can we learn from its history?
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Philosophy, art, democracy, language, even computers – our world has been shaped by the products of Greek civilisation. Yet most of us know little about a people and a place that have given us so much. We may be familiar with Pericles and the Parthenon, but what of Epaminondas, the Theban general who saved the Greek world from Spartan tyranny? Alexander the Great’s fame has rolled down the centuries, but the glorious Hellenistic Age that came after him is largely forgotten. ‘Byzantine’ often conjures a vague notion of decadence and deadly intrigue, yet the 1000-year empire ruled from Constantinople saved Europe twice from invasion and was, in fact, Greek.
The story of modern Greece, too, is a dramatic tale of triumph and catastrophe, from liberation and expansion through schism and home-grown dictatorship, Nazi occupation and civil war to today’s nation – battered by austerity, a transit camp for the casualties of the Middle East, at the frontline of climate change – yet still proud of its values.
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