27 April 2022
What the Pacific wants
The Solomon Islands’ security agreement with China is presenting a serious Australian foreign policy crisis. Yet Australian responses driven by hawkish rhetoric that sees Pacific island countries simply as geopolitical chess pieces will risk alienating Pacific Islanders and undermining Australia’s relationships and objectives.
Additionally, Australia’s development assistance within the region should not be seen as a vehicle for buying influence. Aid is often essential for Pacific island countries due to their unique geographies, though this is not necessarily what they want. Greater market access for goods and services – in particular, labour market access to Australia and New Zealand – is their priority.
The Pacific Labour Mobility scheme is a mechanism that Pacific island countries are enthusiastic about, and a soft power bonus that China cannot match. Yet hurdles to participation for both employers and employees, as well as the limited sectors participants can work in, hinder its effectiveness. Seeing Pacific Islanders as only farmhands or meat processors restricts the scheme’s broader aims. There are skills and capabilities within Pacific island countries that would justify an expansion.
Australia should not underestimate the power of the dignity of work and the ability to provide for one’s family. The respect, trust and security within the Pacific that Australia desires can be consolidated through greater people-to-people links, rather than government transactions.
Last week, Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) submitted a proposal to the office of the prime minister advocating that Japan double its defence spending within the next five years. The proposal was timed to coincide with the forthcoming revision of Japan’s National Security Strategy, the first since 2013.
If adopted, it would demonstrate that Japan no longer feels bound by spending limits imposed after World War II, when it committed to an informal cap on defence spending of 1 per cent of GDP. This would also further highlight the weakening commitment to Article 9 of Japan’s constitution, which renounces the right to use force as a means of settling international disputes.
In 2014, the government of Shinzō Abe overturned Japan’s ban on arms exports – a shift designed to secure the contract for Australia’s new submarine fleet. Since then, it has sold maritime radars to the Philippines, signed a general agreement to export arms to Vietnam, and is in talks with Indonesia to construct eight new frigates.
China’s rapid rise to great power status, an unpredictable North Korea, and Japan’s island disputes with Russia are leading to a belief for Japan that its post-war defence constraints are unsuited to current realities. Political instability in the United States, which may threaten Washington’s security guarantees, is also causing concern.
For Australia, Japan’s increased defence spending would be enthusiastically welcomed. Despite the submarine deal falling through, Canberra and Tokyo have become intimate and trusted security partners over the past decade, signing a new agreement in January to provide mutual access to each other’s ports and bases, and greater logistical coordination.
Macron’s next mission
French president Emmanuel Macron won last weekend’s run-off election against the radical reactionary Marine Le Pen, but his 58 per cent of the vote was far from a triumph. Le Pen’s share of the vote indicates that there is an entrenched cynicism in France towards liberal ideas – and the institutions that house them.
The hope was that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would prove a clarifying event, that it would provide greater understanding of the brutality of authoritarianism, and spark recommitment to liberal values in countries like France that have prominent reactionary movements. This hasn’t proved to be the case. Despite Le Pen’s close and very public ties to Russia, she secured over two and a half million more votes than she did in the 2017 presidential run-off.
Clearly Le Pen’s views are no longer taboo; they are now mainstream. This creates additional pressure not just for French society, and especially its minorities, but for the European Union and NATO as well – institutions that Le Pen has expressed suspicion towards. While Macron may have secured some stability for another five years, the problem for France, Europe and allies like Australia is that he cannot run again.
Macron’s party – Le République En Marche – currently holds just under half of the seats in the National Assembly (with parliamentary elections to be held in June), but it remains a personal vehicle rather than an institutional party. With the previous two dominant parties – Les Républicains and Parti Socialiste – having been reduced to spectators, Macron’s most critical task in his second term may be to find a successor.