The Pacific Islands is a region unique to Australia’s national interest. In no other part of the world does Australia wield more influence or carry such a heavy burden of history. The Pacific is also unique for its development challenges. Small size and remoteness, compounded by climate change and rapid population growth, will ensure that Australia’s support is needed for years to come. The entrance of new partners, particularly China, has put the Pacific back towards the centre of Australian foreign policy thinking.
In an effort to reassert Australia’s position as the ‘partner of choice’ in the region, and to dissuade China from investments that threaten Australia’s strategic interests, the government has announced more resources for the Pacific. It will allocate 35% of all Australian foreign aid ($1.4 billion) to the Pacific. Investments will include a $2 billion infrastructure lending facility and a $1 billion capital guarantee to Australia’s Export Finance and Insurance Corporation. The government will also open new diplomatic missions and a Pacific office within DFAT. In March 2019 Australia and PNG signed an agreement to build a joint naval base on PNG’s Manus Island.
Scott Morrison’s address on the Pacific →
Speaking at the Lowy Institute in 2018, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said that Labor supported an increased focus on the region. It is unlikely any of the recent government announcements would be reversed or changed markedly under a Shorten government. Climate change policy, both domestically and in the Pacific, stands out as a major point of difference. The Labor Party will push for a Pacific Bank instead of an infrastructure lending facility.
Labor’s policy on the Pacific →
The Pacific is back at the centre of Australian foreign policy thinking, with China’s increasing interest and investment in the region the driving force. Pacific politicians and analysts have been talking about China for more than a decade, but the newfound intensity of attention focused on the region in the past six months is both unprecedented and welcome.
However, the new emphasis upsets some Pacific pundits and politicians who say that too much talking is being done over the heads of Pacific Islanders, and that Pacific agency to manage its own affairs is underestimated. These are legitimate concerns.
There are also clear risks for Australia. One is the breakneck pace of new announcements, which will make implementation challenging in a part of the world where Australia struggles to manage what it is already doing. Another is consistency. The Pacific has seen this kind of attention from Australia before, only for it to fade quickly. Scott Morrison said, “to step up you’ve got to show up”.3 Will the next government show up?
Then there is the Pacific problem Australia would prefer not to talk about: climate change. The Boe Declaration on Regional Security calls climate change (not China) the “single greatest threat” to the Pacific.4 On climate, Australia has too often been at odds with Pacific Island countries instead of championing their case.
Despite these risks and frustrations, the renewed focus on the region is likely to continue into the 46th parliament, regardless of who forms government.