Pacific approach needs a human touch

Why Australia’s “step-up” needs people, not just policy

Next Voices

Australia is anxious about its position in the Pacific. Reports of Beijing’s plans to establish a military presence in the region have alarmed strategists. The Australian media’s declining footprint in the Pacific has eroded familiarity with our neighbours. And climate change has caused tension between Australia and Pacific nations on the question of what matters most: coal or coastlines. Canberra has, with some urgency, begun to re-engage with the region, and big announcements have flowed: five new diplomatic missions and the creation of the Office of the Pacific within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade; funding for infrastructure and Australian business in the region; an expanded labour mobility scheme; plans for a redeveloped naval base on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island, a Pacific military training force in Brisbane, electrification across Papua New Guinea, and a fibre-optic cable system connecting Australia, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. To consolidate this engagement, official visits to the Pacific have become more frequent – Scott Morrison’s first overseas trip after the election was to the Solomon Islands, and he has also visited Fiji, Tuvalu and Vanuatu this year. 

Australia clearly wants to play a leading role in the Pacific – to renew its special relationship with the region. But no special relationship is conducted solely at the official level: it needs contributions from across society. Intimacy is hard to develop if Australians do not understand the concerns and aspirations of Pacific people; we need to hear from them directly. The “step up” needs a human touch.

All eyes on the Pacific

Global interest in the Pacific is on the rise. There’s a new intensity to diplomacy in the region – more players, more money and more competition. China is seeking influence and has ramped up aid, spending US$1.3 billion between 2011 and 2018. The Cook Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Niue, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu have all signed Belt and Road agreements with Beijing, and the Solomon Islands could soon join them. Rumoured and halted Chinese projects – a port on Manus Island, a potentially dual-use wharf in Santo, Vanuatu, and an undersea cable linking Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Australia – have all attracted attention worldwide. The United States is feeling competitive too, boosting its engagement at the Pacific Islands Forum and creating a new National Security Council position for Oceania & Indo-Pacific Security. Members of the US Congress also recently founded a bipartisan Congressional Pacific Islands Caucus. Then there is Taiwan, whose president, Tsai Ing-wen, visited Palau, Nauru and the Marshall Islands in 2019, pledging new patrol boats and more flights to the region from Taiwan. However, Taipei was stung by the recent severance of relations with Taiwan by the Solomon Islands and Kiribati, who both switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing. France maintains a military presence and vast exclusive economic zones that anchor its interests in the region, and the French territories of New Caledonia and French Polynesia gained full membership of the Pacific Islands Forum in 2016.

A raft of slogans have emerged from countries seeking to re-energise their engagement in the Pacific. New Zealand’s “Pacific reset” encompasses an enlarged development program and close personal attention from prime minister Jacinda Ardern and foreign minister Winston Peters. The United Kingdom’s “Pacific uplift” includes new diplomatic posts in Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu. Indonesia, which faces resistance from some Pacific island capitals over West Papua, ran a Pacific trade show in New Zealand and launched new bilateral ties with Niue and the Cook Islands under its “Pacific elevation”. And Australia, of course, is stepping up. But for Pacific governments, competition in the region is only one of many concerns. 

Changes and challenges

Rising populations, a growing youth demographic, and rural–urban migration are testing governments in the Pacific. Jobs are scarce and many younger people are looking overseas for opportunities. Non-communicable diseases, the largest cause of premature mortality in the Pacific, are a huge burden on public health, and the list of environmental concerns is ever growing: the ubiquity of single-use plastics, worsening water quality in cities and invasive species threatening agriculture. All of these are linked to – but eclipsed by – climate change. The 2018 Boe Declaration, adopted by all members of the Pacific Islands Forum in Nauru, identifies climate change as the greatest security issue facing the region. Australia is party to the declaration, but its energy policies are a sticking point: Canberra committed repurposed development assistance to climate projects at the 2019 PIF, but Pacific leaders view Australia’s climate targets under the Paris Agreement as inadequate. 

Some Pacific islanders feel that Australia’s focus is one-sided – that it is only concerned with Chinese influence, and is unwilling to take on climate change in a meaningful way. “[Pacific islanders] are calling for the rest of the world to take more ambitious and decisive action,” Australia’s defence force chief, Angus Campbell, said in a recent speech. “The issue of climate change will influence our long-standing relationship with our Pacific island neighbours.” 

It is not just Australia to which this message is being directed. Admiral Viliame Naupoto, commander of the Fijian military, told this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore that “there are three major powers in competition in our region … the US, [which] has always been there, forever … China, which has been a loyal friend to many of us. The third competitor is climate change. Of the three, climate change is winning.” Australia might feel left out of this triad, but Naupoto knew his audience: competition between China and the United States will always draw attention. For the Pacific, the climate trap is a more certain threat than the Thucydides Trap

A new generation of leaders will confront these challenges. Those who guided the wave of independence declarations in the region are exiting the public stage, and young Pacific islanders – bright, tech-savvy and connected to the world – are poised to take up positions of power. They are regionally minded and demanding of their political leaders. Pacific islander schoolchildren – who are advocating for the Blue Pacific concept, marching against climate change and debating the merits of their countries’ relationships with Australia and China – exemplify this proud independence and sense of agency.

How to introduce a human touch

To address this increasingly competitive environment and work alongside Pacific peoples on regional challenges, Australia cannot rely on government alone. If the “step up” is to succeed, we need to exercise a form of listening leadership, draw on a wide breadth of existing assets and relationships, and prioritise direct contact between Australians and Pacific islanders, especially this new generation. This requires guidance and encouragement from government, of course, but also the involvement of businesses and the media, students, academics and curious citizens. The Australian conversation about the Pacific needs to step up and out of the usual silos, and there are at least four ways we can make this happen. 

First, let’s get our language right. The Pacific is no one’s “backyard”. It is no one’s “patch”, apart from those who live there. Morrison uses the Fijian iTaukei word vuvale, meaning familial relationship, to describe a new closeness in the bilateral partnership. This is perceptive, but it is also a yardstick for Australia’s relationship with the region. Words such as vuvale, talanoa (discussion and storytelling to build consensus) and wantok (a familial bond based on shared language) have deep local meanings that do not translate easily to English. All Australian officials in the region should take care to use them, and Australians living in the region should make an effort to speak the local tongue. Academia has a role to play here too. While the Australian National University launched an online Tok Pisin course in 2019, the Melanesian pidgin language spoken in Papua New Guinea is the first Pacific language taught at the tertiary level in Australia. Meanwhile, Beijing Foreign Studies University is advertising courses on seven Pacific languages (Bislama, Cook Islands Māori, Fijian, Niuean, Samoan, Tok Pisin and Tongan), and New Zealand universities offer Cook Islands Māori, Samoan and Tongan. 

Second, we should continue to invest in the movement of people between Australia and the Pacific. Onerous and confusing Australian visa processes are a consistent complaint for Pacific islanders and need to be simplified. The New Colombo Plan should encourage more students to study in the region. Between 2014 and 2018, more than 28,000 Australian students studied in Asian countries, compared to under 3000 who studied in the Pacific (including Timor-Leste). And more young Australians should seek work in Pacific island countries, including as volunteers. More promisingly, Australia Awards Scholarships and the Seasonal Worker Program and Pacific Labour Scheme are hugely popular. They offer Pacific islanders an opportunity to study and work in Australia, building skills, helping to kickstart businesses back home and form regional networks. These exchanges build trust and encourage Australians to see the world from the Pacific perspective.

Third, sport should be a vehicle to bring the region together. The recent Pacific Games attracted enormous international interest, and Australia and New Zealand’s participation was an inexpensive charm offensive. Within Australia, the move to include the PNG Hunters rugby league team in the Queensland Cup has been a step forward for that bilateral relationship. News that a Fijian team will enter the NSW Cup in 2021 is similarly encouraging. But there is more we could do: A-League and W-League clubs and national football teams would be brilliant ambassadors in Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands, and the National Rugby League Indigenous All Stars or the Prime Minister’s XIII could take a Pacific tour. 

Fourth, we should have a larger media footprint in the region. The ABC does fine but lonely work. It is good news that the Judith Neilson Institute recently awarded a grant to The Guardian Australia to employ a Pacific editor, and that the Walkley Foundation is awarding an annual grant for Pacific journalism. But we need to find more cost-effective and sustainable ways to ensure that Australians are informed about our region. Journalism in the digital age is a tough market. It will take a mix of philanthropy, government subsidies and sponsorship to fund consistent, quality reporting on the Pacific. Media engagement is not just a matter of informing Australians, but of speaking directly to Pacific audiences and helping to boost their own media infrastructure. Curated Australian content on Pacific screens is good, but support for independent Pacific media organisations is even better.

Beyond these four measures, and perhaps most importantly, we need to listen to the Pacific on climate change. When Australians sit face to face with people whose homes, gardens and burial grounds are threatened, the climate threat becomes impossible to ignore. Economics and electoral incentives set boundaries for Australian climate policy, but our regional interests should play a larger role in that debate. Next year, when Australia reviews its Paris Agreement pledge, we should give weight to our foreign policy interests, and come to that review informed by consultations with our regional neighbours. This is not charity but self-interest. 

Considering Australia’s history and affinity with, and proximity to, the people of the Pacific islands, the nation’s future is strongly tied to the region. But our neighbourhood is undergoing – and engineering its own – significant changes. As Jenny Hayward-Jones argues in “Cross Purposes” in AFA6: Our Sphere of Influence, Australia has not been quite so at odds with the perspectives of Pacific island governments before. The “step-up” has made a promising start to recalibrating our engagement, but a broader cross-section of our society needs to understand the changes happening in the Pacific from the Pacific’s point of view, and to develop real, personal links with our vuvale.


Alastair Davis is a writer currently based in Vanuatu. Read our interview with Alastair here