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Solving Australia’s foreign affairs challenges

Australian Foreign Affairs 8: Can We Trust America?

This article is featured in Australian Foreign Affairs 8: Can We Trust America?. To read the full issue subscribe or buy the issue.

John Blaxland on Developing a Grand Compact for the Pacific

“Australia could gain economically and politically from bolstering security and stability in the region, while also helping to limit destabilising external interference.”

THE PROBLEM: The micro states of the Pacific are facing a range of existential challenges. These include: looming environmental catastrophe associated with climate change; inadequate governance; and maritime, territorial and domestic security problems related to or exacerbated by tensions between great powers battling for supremacy in the region. Many of these nations are ill-prepared for the likely consequences and have limited capacity to respond to them. Visionary and respectful Australian engagement is needed to avert disaster.

The South Pacific has long been treated as a policy backwater in Canberra, seen as Australia’s (and New Zealand’s) strategic safe space – the small nations there have been taken for granted, in part because they are politically oriented towards their larger Commonwealth neighbours. At the time of Australia’s federation, much of the Pacific consisted of British colonies. Post-independence, these states retained a legacy of the English language and common law that left them with a system of governance most similar to those of Australia and New Zealand. Today, Australia and New Zealand are the first choices for education and alternative residence for many in the Pacific.

While proud of their distinctive cultures and political independence, the small Pacific states value the aid and support of Australia and New Zealand. But they resent Australia’s unwillingness to lead more actively in addressing the risks of environmental disaster. Their small populations and economies also belie the enormous potential bestowed on them by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which has left them with exclusive economic zones (EEZs) that, cumulatively, are far larger and potentially more lucrative than those of many more-populous countries. Consequently, these states are subject to predatory behaviour from countries such as China.

During World War II, the South Pacific was fought over intensely, with US forces defending it as part of a strategy to keep sea-based communication lines open. Today it is difficult to envisage conflict on that scale, but the contest over the region’s lucrative fisheries and potential seabed mineral resources is growing. As such supplies become scarce elsewhere in the world, greater competition is likely.

Recent Chinese generosity towards the smaller Pacific states – particularly the provision of development loans for infrastructure projects of dubious viability – have generated concern in the West. These loans can lead to excessive debt that gives China influence, if not control, over small and relatively vulnerable island communities.

This all presents a growing crisis, but also an opportunity. Many in the region are open to respectful and collegial Australian engagement and leadership, but suspicious of its waxing and waning of enthusiasm for all things Pacific. The federal government’s “Pacific step-up” is a move in the right direction. But to protect Australia’s long-term interests in the Pacific, something more substantive and far-reaching is needed.

THE PROPOSAL: Australia should offer a compact of association with South Pacific countries, allowing for shared governance. This would be akin to the treaty arrangements the United States has in the Pacific with Palau, the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia, and New Zealand has with Niue and the Cook Islands.

The compact should come with an offer of residency (and potentially citizenship) for the population should the situation become untenable in their home islands. It should involve closer partnership arrangements over territorial and maritime domains, assisting with administration and management, security and governance – areas in which Australia already has capacity, expertise and experience.

To develop this compact, Australia should look to other Pacific arrangements as precedents, mindful of the need to tailor provisions to the requirements of individual nations. The compact should be offered to:

  • Kiribati (population 115,000; EEZ 3.4 million square kilometres)
  • Tonga (population 107,000; EEZ 660,000 square kilometres)
  • Tuvalu (population 11,000; EEZ 750,000 square kilometres)
  • Nauru (population 11,000; EEZ 308,000 square kilometres).

That means Australia would offer residency rights, and potentially citizenship, to just over 244,000 people, and help to administer and guarantee sovereignty to a cumulative EEZ of over 5.118 million square kilometres. Australia could gain economically and politically from bolstering security and stability in the region, while also helping to limit destabilising external interference.

Australia’s former prime minister Kevin Rudd was recently criticised for proposing something similar: his “formal constitutional condominium” triggered an angry reaction from Tuvalu’s prime minister, Enele Sopoaga, who accused Rudd of “imperialist thinking”. But Sopoaga’s criticisms are superficial. His remarks point to concerns over current policy regarding climate change – something that stronger domestic action could ameliorate. The proposal outlined here is a compact that is practical, respectful, inclusive and voluntary.

Such an arrangement makes sense for the smallest Pacific states because they have limited populations and resources to sustain effective international representation – in particular, to assert their rights and obligations under UNCLOS. The larger Pacific states have greater capacity to address these concerns. Still, a similar but less all-encompassing supportive arrangement could also be considered for the larger Pacific states, including:

  • Vanuatu (population 270,000; EEZ 663,000 square kilometres)
  • Solomon Islands (population 600,000; EEZ 1.59 million square kilometres)
  • Fiji (population 898,000; EEZ 1.282 million square kilometres).

This could include more collaborative patrolling of EEZs – Royal Australian Navy vessel patrols supporting the local authorities – and some additional opportunities for residency in Australia.

Papua New Guinea, with a population of more than eight million and an EEZ of 2.402 million square kilometres, is in a league alone; it is large enough to sustain the economic and administrative burden of managing its own EEZ, and is too populous to expect residency rights for its citizens. Still, Australia should also look to bolster ties and deepen reciprocal arrangements with the nation, particularly around policing and related domestic governance issues.

WHY IT WILL WORK: Australia already invests heavily in bolstering governance, security, stability and prosperity in the Pacific. The Pacific step-up encompasses not just the seasonal worker program (involving nearly 30,000 Pacific Islanders) but also scholarships, infrastructure investment, climate and disaster resilience funding, a new patrol-boat and aerial surveillance program, and police and defence partnerships. There is already much cooperation over law enforcement, and legal and administrative arrangements. This suggests greater collaboration through a compact would be workable, if local sensitivities and cultural idiosyncrasies are taken into account.

Australia has a demand for additional workers. As a nation of migrants that benefits enormously from its multicultural composition, it has the capacity to absorb a surge in population from the Pacific. As part of the compact, Pacific citizens could also be encouraged to serve in Australian military and police forces.

Annually, Australia’s net migration is about 200,000 people. Opening up residency opportunities to 244,000 more would likely only result in a small additional number of migrants over a span of years. Understandably, most islanders would prefer not to move; but under a compact, in the face of environmental or economic imperatives, they would have the freedom to choose. Those keenest to relocate could be among the first offered residency.

Some Australians might baulk at the costs of such a scheme, but in the long run the benefits – particularly the prospect of greater peace, security and stability in the Pacific – would outweigh the expense.

The success of a free compact arrangement will depend on presenting it in a respectful manner that considers Pacific environmental sensibilities. It will work only if Australia avoids a patronising, domineering and selfish approach, and agrees to safeguards that ensure the dignity of the states involved. It will be critical to articulate the mutual benefits, lest the arrangement appear a neo-colonial land grab. It should be presented as a multigenerational collaborative commitment.

This model of engagement should be pursued not just because of shared interests but as a generous-spirited attempt to find a solution to the problems Pacific micro-states face. The confluence of great-power contestation, governance challenges and looming environmental catastrophe points to the need for a concerted visionary response – and a grand compact of association for the Pacific is the most viable answer.

THE RESPONSE: The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said it was deepening engagement across the Pacific but would not say whether it supported or rejected offering countries a compact of association. It said it was enhancing economic and security ties through schemes such as the seasonal worker program and a program to support maritime patrols and surveillance. “We are listening and responding to the priorities identified by our Pacific partners to help address long-term security, economic and development challenges,” a spokesperson said. “The government acknowledges the important contribution experts from academia and think tanks make in the policy development process via their contributions to discussion and debate.” 

Australian Foreign Affairs 8: Can We Trust America?

This is “The Fix” from Australian Foreign Affairs 8: Can We Trust America?. To read the full issue subscribe or buy the issue.