1 July 2020
Last Friday, Xi Jinping wrote a letter to congratulate Taneti Maamau on his re-election as president of Kiribati. Xi, whose letter celebrated the new-found warmth between the two countries, had good reason to be pleased. Last year, Maamau cut ties with Taiwan, switching Kiribati’s allegiance to China. In January, he travelled to Beijing to meet with Xi in the Great Hall of the People, where they witnessed the signing of documents joining Kiribati to the Belt and Road Initiative. China may also seek to reopen a space tracking station in Kiribati, which is across the border from the United States’ ballistic missile testing range in the Marshall Islands.
China’s efforts to develop closer ties with Kiribati, and nations across the Pacific, have not been deterred by the COVID-19 pandemic. Nor should Australia’s efforts to improve relations with its Pacific neighbours be hindered by the pandemic, especially since its so-called Pacific “step-up” strategy is meant to counter China’s growing influence in the region.
One immediate measure Australia should take is to include its neighbours in its “trans-Tasman bubble”, the travel zone between Australia and New Zealand that will be set up if or when Australia can safely join.
Recent restrictions on international flights and cruise liners have taken a heavy economic toll on Pacific countries. Several have urged Australia and New Zealand to include them in their proposed travel bubble.
Last week, Fiji’s prime minister Frank Bainimarama proposed a “Bula bubble”, which would allow travellers from Australia and New Zealand to visit and spend their initial quarantine period at a resort. Tourism generates more than a third of Fiji’s gross domestic product, and about 40 per cent of its visitors come from Australia.
Kiribati has a much smaller tourism sector and it is hard to reach. But the benefits of restoring international visits extend beyond tourism. Pacific travel bubbles could enable Pacific islanders to travel to Australia for work or allow new commercial and trade ties to be established. And they would help Australia to build on its existing advantage in the Pacific – its long history of engagement with Pacific nations. Australia has had a permanent high commission in Kiribati since 1981, two years after it became independent; China’s embassy is six weeks old.
The first step in creating a Pacific bubble would be to address the health needs of participating nations. Small island countries were quick to self-isolate because they are particularly vulnerable to outbreaks and their health facilities do not adequately cover their vast territories. As a result of its self-imposed isolation, the Pacific has remained largely free of COVID-19. Fiji has had eighteen cases; Kiribati has had none. Australia would have to cooperate on developing protocols, such as pre-flight travel checks, to ensure the health of Pacific islanders wouldn’t be endangered.
Several Pacific countries, including Fiji, Samoa, the Solomon Islands and the Cook Islands, have expressly proposed the creation of a Pacific travel bubble. They are interested in resuming travel ties with Australia and New Zealand, which together account for about 51 per cent of travellers to the Pacific. China accounts for less than 6 per cent of travellers.
Australia’s aid to the Pacific still far exceeds China’s, but in the longer term it has little hope of competing for influence in a chequebook-diplomacy war. China’s pockets are too deep. Instead, Australia can look for opportunities to develop mutual interests that already exist. Scott Morrison should congratulate Maamau and propose a meeting soon – in Canberra, not on Zoom.
Vale Owen Harries
Once described by The Bulletin as “the most famous Australian in Washington”, Owen Harries was proof that Australia’s anxieties about its influence on global affairs were exaggerated. Harries was a leading figure in foreign affairs, both in Australia and abroad. He was an academic, an adviser to former prime minister Malcolm Fraser, a fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies and the Lowy Institute, and co-founder of The National Review, an influential American magazine.
In 2003, in the last of his Boyer Lectures, Harries recommended that every Australian foreign policymaker hang this quote from Walter Lippmann on their wall:
Without the controlling principle that the nation must maintain its objectives and its power in equilibrium, its purposes within its means and its means equal to its purposes, its commitments related to its resources and its resources adequate to its commitment, it is impossible to think at all about foreign affairs
Alternatively, policymakers could hang up this quote of Harries, from an address he gave at Sydney University in 2010:
The future does not exist; it is not something there to be discovered, like an island or a mountain. It is something which has still to be made. And how it is made, and what it will become, will depend on people like you, here and throughout the world.
Harries died last week, aged 90.