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A Pacific Overstep

Australia’s flawed focus on integration

Next Voices

Australia has an ambitious vision for engagement with the Pacific. Well-trodden models of Pacific partnerships are out, and a “new framework” for “regional integration” is in. This so-called Pacific step-up, outlined in the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper, seeks to deepen Australia’s Pacific relations beyond neighbourly niceties and move towards a model of economic, security and social connectedness.

Given Australia’s apathy towards its neighbours over the last decade, it’s no surprise that Pacific leaders have welcomed re-engagement with the region. But when in recent years have these leaders expressed their desire for broad-sweeping integration with Australia? Here lies the rub.

Pacific leaders have long criticised Australia for overlooking, if not wilfully ignoring, their voices, ambitions and concerns. From Canberra’s forcing of the Enhanced Cooperation Program upon a reluctant Papua New Guinea in 2004 to its repeated refusal to commit to meaningful domestic emissions reductions, Australia has demonstrated its deliberate deafness to Pacific concerns and ambitions time and again. Our latest policy, built on a platform of integration, appears to be a further example of such obtuseness. Does the Pacific step-up represent yet another uncalled-for and unwelcome model of Pacific engagement?

The troubled history of integration

Despite what the latest Foreign Policy White Paper suggests, Australia’s Pacific step-up does not represent a “new approach” to our engagement with the region. Its vision for shared economic institutions, coordinated security agencies and the revitalisation of labour mobility schemes to meet Australia’s demand for seasonal workers bears more than passing resemblance to previous approaches to the islands and their peoples.

Introduced during the era of empire, integration policies were central to Australia’s activities in the Pacific region. As the colonial power in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, Australia asserted its sovereignty over these islands and their populations, effectively “integrating” them into its territories, laws and workforce. Practices such as blackbirding – coercing indentured labourers, often through deception or kidnapping – and the exhaustive mining of Nauru’s phosphate deposits provide clear examples of the exploitation that occurred under Australia’s imperialist policies. Given this troubled history, it is not surprising that many Pacific leaders have approached Australia’s renewed interest in the region with caution.

In recent times, Pacific leaders have celebrated Australia’s reinvigorated engagement with their nations while remaining noticeably silent on the matter of integration. They are not opposed to more intimate involvement with Australia, but their response to the step-up has been coupled with assertions of their independence, right to self-determination and non-alignment. For example, in an address earlier in 2019, Fiji’s prime minister Frank Bainimarama “hit back” against tactless comments made by Australian ministers about rising sea levels, asserting that Fiji “can hardly tolerate such insensitive, neo-colonial prescriptions”. Papua New Guinea’s former prime minister Peter O’Neill qualified his embrace of the step-up with a stern warning that Australia should “respect” the territorial integrity of his island state. The message is clear: Pacific nations welcome Australia’s interest, but they are not prepared to compromise their sovereignty to facilitate it.

Australia needs to work to overcome its image as a colonial ruler and establish a framework for relations based on mutual trust and respect. A vision of integration is not the right foundation for this – it is too deeply tied to histories of colonisation. If Australia is to develop an effective way forward in its Pacific relations, it must recognise the history of the region and the role it has played in it. Ultimately, it must acknowledge the evolving vision many islands have for the future.

A new Pacific landscape

The geopolitical landscape of the South Pacific has shifted dramatically over the past two decades, and Australia’s position of regional dominance is facing challenge. China’s expanding influence – including its new status as the region’s third-largest aid donor – has been the headline capturing the attention of Australian politicians, policymakers and media, but it is not the only factor in this shift. Also contributing are the growing interest of other external powers – including Japan, Russia and India – the waning US presence and the increased assertiveness of Pacific nations themselves. In this changing landscape, it is more important than ever that Australia approaches its neighbours with well-considered, flexible policies for Pacific engagement.

Why, then, does so much about the step-up appear a carbon copy of a 2003 proposal?

Although marketed as a “new approach” to Australia’s regional engagement, the step-up shares remarkable similarities with the “Pacific economic and political community” proposed by the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade nearly fifteen years ago. In the early 2000s, concerned by a deteriorating security situation – particularly in Fiji and Solomon Islands – and a growing backlash to market liberalisation from developing nations, the Senate established an inquiry into our relations with Papua New Guinea and the islands of the south-west Pacific. Their 2003 report, A Pacific Engaged, outlined an ambitious proposal for a Pacific “community”, which aspired to a common currency (based on the Australian dollar), a common labour market and shared defence and security arrangements. Effectively a Pacific version of the European Union, this community was envisaged as an integrated economic, social and security network that would deliver regional stability, encourage economic development and deepen neighbourly ties. Given that the Pacific islands were then commonly viewed as an “arc of instability” by Australian politicians, who were cautious of becoming too entangled with the region, it comes as small surprise that this idea for an integrated Pacific community attracted little enthusiasm in Canberra.

Fast-forward to 2017 and we find the vision of integration re-emerge in the first comprehensive Foreign Policy White Paper Australia has released in more than a decade. Despite radical changes in the regional landscape, the approach has hardly shifted. Much like the 2003 report, the white paper’s policy vision is broad. It advances on the notion of a common labour market with the Pacific Labour Scheme. It promotes political integration through the establishment of the Office of the Pacific within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. It discusses shared defence arrangements and an A$2 billion commitment to the Pacific Maritime Security Program. Although it steers away from advocating a common regional currency, it celebrates Australia’s establishment of the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations (PACER) Plus, a regional free-trade agreement covering goods, services and investment.

While some may embrace the scope of this policy as a sign that Australia is broadening its interests in the Pacific beyond security, one must ask: is this fourteen-year-old vision still relevant today? What’s more, does this broad-integration approach risk Australia overstepping its role in the region – stepping on the toes of its Pacific counterparts?

At a time when Pacific leaders have developed and leveraged international forums to assert their agency, Australia’s proposal for regional integration presents them with a conundrum. The step-up benefits Pacific nations by providing better access to Australia’s economic, political and security institutions. But it risks drawing these nations tighter into Australia’s sphere of influence, which many have been actively distancing themselves from for more than a decade. 

Over the last ten years, we have seen Pacific nations establish and strengthen regional institutions that provide a counterweight to Australia and New Zealand’s dominance in the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF). The most prominent two are the Pacific Islands Development Forum, which was established by Fiji as a direct challenge to the PIF, and the Melanesian Spearhead Group, which has become increasingly engaged in regional geopolitics over recent years. This has been paired with growing activity on the international stage. Just a few examples include: Fiji’s presidency of the 2017–18 United Nations Climate Change Conference, Papua New Guinea’s hosting of the 2018 APEC summit, the establishment of the Pacific Small Island Developing States Group, and Fiji’s entrance into the Non-Aligned Movement alongside Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu.

Gone are the days when the Pacific islands sit neatly within the boundary of Australia’s “backyard” – the region has become “crowded and complex”, as the secretary-general of the PIF, Dame Meg Taylor, noted in an address earlier this year. Australia’s step-up policy does not adequately acknowledge the current context of Pacific assertiveness, and this endangers the efficacy of our re-engagement altogether. With many Pacific nations seeking to step out from Australia’s shadow and forge their own path in regional and international politics, Canberra is deluded to believe that a vision of an integrated Pacific community led by Australia will be warmly welcomed by island leaders.

Australia’s policy direction also does not acknowledge the “friends to all” approach many Pacific nations are pursuing. The presence of new powers in the region, notably China, is an opportunity for Pacific nations to diversify their international relationships beyond the small pool of traditional partners they have long relied on for development, economic, security and diplomatic assistance. Pacific leaders have become remarkably adept at managing multiple relationships and securing opportunities for their complex, resource-rich but infrastructure- and security-challenged region. Consider Papua New Guinea’s careful hedging of its relations with Australia and China, which has seen both powers increase their investment in the nation and Australia significantly boost its aid contribution. Or Vanuatu’s refusal to enter into an exclusive security arrangements with any foreign power, which enables it to maintain its comprehensive strategic partnership with China while securing an Australian commitment to a stronger security partnership.

Why would Australia’s neighbouring states comprehensively support the integrationist vision of the Pacific step-up, when doing so would likely limit their ability to engage with other large powers? It is time Australia recognised the geostrategic sophistication of its neighbours and stopped assuming they only desire to be drawn closer into its sphere of influence.

As writer Graeme Dobell put it in The Strategist earlier this year, integration is the “Oz Pacific policy that can’t be named”. The Pacific step-up, in its focus on integration, carries belittling assumptions about the ambitions and sophistication of our Pacific counterparts. A step-up approach might have worked in the early 2000s, but today we need to move beyond such simple thinking.

Reimagining Australia–Pacific partnerships

It is time Australia listened. If we focus on the language that Pacific leaders are using to describe Australia–Pacific relations, it is clear that they are veering away from the vocabulary of integration. Instead, these leaders emphasise partnerships.

Australia’s Pacific partnerships are not without a chequered past – just consider the souring of the RAMSI intervention in Solomon Islands as the program ran into its eighth, ninth and tenth year of operation. However, despite such incidents, Pacific leaders continue to support frameworks for regional partnerships. From the 2008 Port Moresby Declaration to the recent Fiji–Australia Vuvale Partnership, partnerships have long been respected and welcomed by Pacific leaders, many of whom view them as a means to engage with Australia on equal terms and in a respectful collaboration.

The Australian government has recently turned to the motif of vuvale, “family”, to describe its relationships with Pacific nations. This term has been embraced enthusiastically by Pacific leaders, who consider it to communicate ideas of trust and mutual respect. Maybe we should look to translate this positive notion of “family” – long-standing, caring relationships – into a new understanding of partnerships.

As Australia’s influence in the Pacific faces increasing competition from nations with more cash in their coffers, it is firmly in our interest to ensure that we establish strong, enduring relations with our Pacific neighbours. When Pacific leaders approach their relationship with Canberra through the language of partnership, it seems futile for Australia to continue with an integration policy both difficult to detach from its neo-colonial connotations and poorly received by many in the region.

Australia’s foreign policy efforts would be far better directed towards re-imagining partnerships than advancing a model for sweeping integration – while we may not be able to outspend China, positioning ourselves as family may ensure we don’t lose our foothold as a primary regional partner. As we work to move Australia–Pacific relations forward, let’s direct our energy towards a new model of regional engagement, based on respect, collaboration and partnership. 


Philippa Louey is studying an honours degree in international relations at the University of New South Wales. Read our interview with Philippa here.