1 December 2021
Australia is facing potential tensions in Melanesia over independence movements in New Caledonia and Bougainville, as well as unrest in the Solomons Islands, where Australian police and defence force personnel were deployed last week to aid peacekeeping efforts.
New Caledonia is due to hold its third and final vote on independence from France on 12 December, but the separatist camp is calling for the vote to be deferred due to the impact of COVID-19 on the indigenous Kanak people, who tend to favour independence.
The Morrison government faces a dilemma whatever happens. If New Caledonia rejects independence, it will reinforce the importance of France’s strategic role in the Pacific. But a pro-independence vote could leave Australia with another politically fragile neighbour in the region.
Meanwhile, following Bougainville’s 2019 pro-independence vote, consultations are underway for Papua New Guinea to transfer further powers to Bougainville by 2023 and full independence by 2027.
However, negotiations between the two governments, a requirement of the 2019 vote, have been set back by the pandemic. Within the PNG leadership, there are also signs of growing resistance to Bougainvillean independence. This is significant, as the independence referendum was non-binding and is still subject to ratification by the PNG parliament.
PNG prime minister James Marape has described Bougainvillean independence as a bigger challenge to Papua New Guinea than the pandemic, despite the devastating health outlook the country faces as a result of low vaccination rates. PNG governor-general Bob Dadae says the country could disintegrate if Bougainville leaves.
While the situation in the Solomon Islands is different, the turmoil it is experiencing underlines the risks of fragmentation that ethnically diverse Melanesian societies face. These tensions are fuelled by resource disputes, which can be exacerbated by foreign interference.
The Australian government wants to avoid another long-term deployment of troops to Melanesia, such as its 2003–17 Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands, but it seems likely that it will still need to play some role in mediating the region’s emerging political and economic disputes.
Indonesia steps out
Indonesia takes over the leadership of the G20 today in what will be a test of President Joko Widodo’s ability to manage high-level international diplomacy.
Last week, under the slogan “Recover Together, Recover Stronger”, his government announced three relatively straightforward priorities for the G20 in 2022: global health, energy transition and digital transformation.
Widodo, who has previously shown little interest in foreign relations, now has an unusual opportunity to raise his country’s international stature during his last two years in office.
Earlier this year, Widodo also played a leadership role in South-East Asia by opposing the military coup in Myanmar, and he is set to chair the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 2023.
Indonesian leaders played a significant part in forming the international Non-Aligned Movement in the 1950s, but more recently the world’s fourth-most populous country and third-largest democracy is sometimes viewed as punching below its weight.
During a series of preliminary meetings with world leaders at the G20 Rome summit and the UN climate change conference in Glasgow, Widodo showed enthusiasm for turning this perception on its head. Indonesia has “to start building self-confidence, a sense of optimism as a leading nation”, he declared.
The Morrison government has offered whole-of-government administrative assistance to support Widodo’s G20 presidency and appears to see it as an opportunity to bolster relations between Indonesia and Australia.
But other countries may have the same idea, especially following Indonesia’s lukewarm response to the AUKUS submarine deal.
Only last week, France – possibly with an eye to Australia’s Indonesian ambitions – announced it would draw on its parallel leadership of the European Union in the first half of 2022 to work closely with Indonesia on the next G20 summit.
Australia is poised to teach more foreign students online and offshore under a ten-year plan to overhaul the international education sector, bringing it more into line with the needs of the domestic market.
The plan, released last week by federal education minister Alan Tudge, suggests that Australian institutions could remotely educate an extra 10 million foreign students over the next two decades.
From this month, the government will also allow foreign students back into the country in certain states, and it has offered some students work visa credits to compensate for asking them to study remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The government hopes that the plan will further ease tensions with universities, which were badly hit by COVID, with shutdowns slashing revenue in what was once the country’s fourth-biggest export sector.
But universities and private training organisations will also come under pressure to enrol fewer onshore students from the world’s two most populous countries – China and India – to reduce dependence on them and increase on-campus diversity.
Tudge said the government wants to see international education “flourish again”, but not at the expense of the Australian student experience. “This means that our public universities need to have a higher priority on diversity in their classrooms,” Tudge said.
Instead, there is an “enormous opportunity” to shift to “high-quality offshore courses”, said Tudge, noting that 58 per cent of the United Kingdom’s international students study offshore compared to 20 per cent of Australia’s international students.
Educating foreign students – mostly from Asia – has been a key part of Australia’s soft diplomacy since the introduction of the Colombo Plan in the 1950s, which saw Australian-educated students advancing to leadership roles in their home countries.
Skills shortages and economic considerations appear to be the main drivers of recent policy changes, but they will require careful management if the longstanding diplomatic benefits of educating foreign students is not lost – especially as Australia faces an increasingly uncertain regional security environment.