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Cross purposes

Cross purposes

Why is Australia’s Pacific influence waning?

Yellow cover of AFA6 with blue writing and a picture of a plane flying over the sea

This extract is featured in Australian Foreign Affairs 6: Our Sphere of Influence. To read the full issue subscribe or buy the issue.


The practice of Australian foreign policy in the Pacific islands region is based on an assumption that the national interests of Australia and Pacific island countries are broadly similar. Pacific islands share with Australia custodianship of the same ocean, membership of the Pacific Islands Forum, Westminster parliamentary traditions and a history of cooperation to advance the region’s interests.

Australia’s dominance as an aid donor, investor and trading partner in the region has helped its policies and initiatives win acceptance from Pacific island governments. Peace, stability and prosperity in the Pacific islands region is supposed to be everyone’s goal, and on this basis, Australian diplomats have urged Pacific island governments to support Australian policies designed to achieve these mutually desired outcomes. Pacific island officials have in the past been reluctant to give voice to interests that conflict with Australia’s in conversation with their counterparts. But over the last five years, as perceptions of Australia’s influence have changed, as China’s visibility has grown, as the climate change threat has worsened and as Pacific island leaders have become more assertive on the public stage, Australia has found its assumptions about the region challenged. For the nation, this marks a new – and more difficult – era of Pacific diplomacy.

Australia’s Pacific diplomacy

The way that Canberra manages its relationships with Pacific island states has long been different from the way it manages relations with other countries. Australia has tended to view its Pacific island neighbours as predominantly poor, weak and fragile states, aid clients with limited agency. Australia has been the key donor in the region by a significant margin for most of the period in which these island states have been independent. Such dominance by one donor in one region is rare globally, similar only to the position the United States has enjoyed in the Middle East.

Australian diplomats based in Pacific islands carry out their work in very different circumstances to their colleagues in Asia, Europe or North America. Australian banks are prominent on the main streets of the capitals, and Australian judges sit regularly, along with some from other countries, on the benches of national courts of appeal. Three countries in the region (Kiribati, Nauru and Tuvalu) use the Australian dollar as their currency. In Papua New Guinea, television audiences can watch Australian stations, and Australian rugby league teams have huge local fan bases. Australian diplomats serving in cities such as Port Moresby, Honiara and Port Vila are featured regularly in local newspapers and radio broadcasts opening aid projects or giving speeches promoting the importance of Australian aid in the community. They have the kind of profile in their host countries that members of parliament enjoy in Australia – a situation certainly not replicated for their counterparts posted elsewhere in the world.

This dynamic creates an immediate inequality. Australian diplomats do not, as a matter of course, use the promise of aid as an inducement to secure commitments from their Pacific island counterparts, and Pacific island officials do not typically make decisions due to fears they may lose out on aid. But it is not possible to say that this never happens. Both parties in the relationship conduct conversations based on the assumption that the Australian holds leverage that the Pacific islander does not.

As a Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) third secretary in Port Vila many years ago, it was part of my job to lobby Vanuatu Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials to support Australian positions at the United Nations, and to negotiate with local officials to secure access for Australian goods and services as part of Vanuatu’s process of joining the World Trade Organization. These types of tasks are performed by diplomats across the world. But in Vanuatu, as in other Pacific island countries, they are often overshadowed by Australia’s dominance.

I once called on the Vanuatu Ministry of Foreign Affairs to lobby for Vanuatu’s support for a resolution that Australia was sponsoring at the United Nations. It was not on a controversial issue, and the foreign ministry readily agreed to support Australia’s position. But then my counterpart told me that the telephones at the ministry had been disconnected due to non-payment of bills, and they had no way of instructing Vanuatu’s UN representative to attend the relevant session and cast a vote. I asked if I could help pass on the instructions via Australian channels, and my counterpart prepared a note for me to fax from the Australian High Commission to Vanuatu’s office in New York. I did so, but I couldn’t help wondering how I would feel in his position – if I was in Canberra and had to ask, for example, a US diplomat to send instructions to my colleagues in another country because I lacked the means to do so.

Pacific island governments have historically relied on Australia to fill in gaps in government services, provide emergency funding and respond to crises, and Australian diplomats were accustomed to being called on by their host governments to solve problems. There was an unwritten understanding that Pacific island governments who regularly called on Australia for help were also (generally) supportive of Australian foreign and trade policy initiatives. But this situation is changing. The increasing influence of other powers in Pacific island capitals will alter the way Australian diplomats do business. Australia can no longer expect that shared values and interests will induce Pacific island governments to support its policies. The effective climate advocacy by Pacific island governments has proven they do not need Australia’s backing to promote their national interests on the world stage. China’s growing aid, trade and investment has given island states choices, reducing Australia’s leverage. Australian ministers and diplomats will need to work harder to convince their Pacific island counterparts to back its policy choices.

Yellow cover of AFA6 with blue writing and a picture of a plane flying over the sea

This is an extract from Australian Foreign Affairs 6: Our Sphere of Influence. To read the full issue subscribe or buy the issue.