For the first time in the postcolonial era, Australia has found itself competing with an alternative regional power in China. This contest is having some positive spin-offs for Pacific nations as they are presented with new offers of support and new avenues for development. But there is also the possibility of a dangerous escalation of tensions reminiscent of the Cold War. Australia is projecting its anxieties and concerns about China onto the Pacific and allowing its regional policies to be shaped by this lens.
The competitive dynamic also creates a false dichotomy, implying that there is a choice for Pacific nations between two rival partners. The reality is that Pacific countries need Australia, just as Australia needs them. Ultimately those in the region need Australia to “step up” on climate action and must find ways to influence Canberra on its number-one security priority. So, in addition to examining Australia’s diplomatic approach, as Hayward-Jones does in her essay, it is also necessary to examine the Pacific’s diplomatic approach to Australia.
In recent years there has been a trend among Pacific nations towards playing a more assertive role in regional and global affairs. As former Kiribati president Anote Tong stated bluntly in 2012: “We have no choice but to engage even more aggressively internationally because the key to our survival will depend on whether international action is taken on climate change.” This has led to more proactive diplomacy, and has seen the influence of the island states, collectively and individually, rise on the global stage. But this newfound confidence among Pacific nations in declaring and asserting their interests will ultimately be meaningless unless “the climate rift”, as Hayward-Jones terms it, between Australia and the Pacific region is somehow bridged.
The Forty-Ninth Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), held in 2018, was significant as it was the first time that Australia was unable to water down the language of the forum’s communiqué on climate change. As Hayward-Jones notes, it signed on to a declaration that recognised climate change as the region’s “single greatest threat to livelihoods, security and well-being”. Australia faced an even stronger declaration in Tuvalu at the 2019 PIF leaders’ summit, which it was only partially able to deflect and water down. This underscores an important synergy (but also tension) in Pacific diplomacy. Australia has long used its membership of the PIF to influence, if not manage, regional affairs in line with its own interests. But a key reason that Pacific island nations invited Australia and New Zealand into the forum was to influence these former metropolitan powers, particularly on trade and development issues. As one of its founding fathers, Fiji’s first prime minister, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, argued: “We were happy to be joined by Australia and New Zealand … for part of the ambitious plan of the Forum … was no less than to alter the whole balance of the terms of trade.”
The perception that Australia and New Zealand exerted “undue influence” over the PIF eventually fuelled some Pacific countries to form alternative regional institutions. It also led to calls – most notably by Fiji’s prime minister Frank Bainimarama – for Australia and New Zealand to be excluded from the PIF. Those calls were echoed at the end of the Tuvalu PIF leaders’ summit. But Fiji is back in the forum’s fold, and the opportunity has returned for member states to again use it to influence its largest member on the policies that matter most. With Australia on board, the region will be better positioned to take on other major carbon polluters, including China.
Almost thirty-five years ago, forum leaders in their communiqué noted China’s “strong interest in playing a helpful and constructive role in the region”. They also noted “Australia’s offer to facilitate productive contacts” between China and the region. Obviously, threat perceptions can and do change. For the Pacific, climate change is already viewed as an existential threat to vulnerable low-lying islands. But this is not just a problem for the Pacific islands. The challenge Australia sees from a rising China may well pale in comparison to the coming climate crisis. It is therefore time for the PIF to frame climate change more broadly, as an existential threat to all its members – Australia included.
Sandra Tarte is associate professor and head of the School of Government, Development and International Affairs at the University of the South Pacific