In his brutally honest assessment, Hugh White is right to suggest that the one constant in Australia’s approach to the Pacific has been the strategic imperative of denying the islands to other powers. In the early 1950s a senior official in the Department of External Affairs, R.N. Hamilton, described the aim of Australia’s Pacific policy as “to exert dominant political influence in the area with a view to maintaining Australian security behind a peripheral screen of islands”. We would be hard-pressed to find a better description of the motivations behind Australia’s current “step-up” in the Pacific, which is driven by concern about the increasing influence of a powerful and worryingly authoritarian China. However, the region has changed greatly since the 1950s, with the emergence of no less than fourteen new island nations.
White is also right to suggest that Australia “should start to treat our smaller close neighbours as independent at last”. It may seem paradoxical but relinquishing crude attempts to exercise a veto over the foreign policy of island states would almost certainly help Australia to maintain its influence in the region. Pacific leaders have long resented Canberra’s tendency to pay attention only when its strategic anxieties are roused. It reminds them that in Australian eyes, Pacific island states don’t matter in their own right. Yet they do matter on the international stage. Far from being powerless, these island nations are significant actors in global politics. They form an important voting bloc at the United Nations and are sovereign over a large swathe of the Earth’s surface. Against significant opposition from powerful countries, at times including the United States, Japan and France, they have successfully pursued their interests: they have secured recognition of their exclusive economic zones under the Law of the Sea treaty, banned driftnet fishing in the South Pacific, negotiated a regional treaty for American boats fishing in their waters, and had New Caledonia and French Polynesia added to the United Nations’ list of non-self-governing territories. Today, island leaders have endorsed a Blue Pacific strategy to work together as an ocean continent to pursue shared interests.