Potential drivers of unregulated population migration in the Pacific Islands require attention from regional governments including Australia.
In 2017 and 2018 a project by the Lowy Institute on South Pacific Fragile States produced independent research and forward-looking analysis on the key drivers of instability in the South Pacific, and the associated security challenges for Australia and the wider region. This included examining geopolitical challenges within an increasingly crowded and complex regional environment, domestic stresses faced by South Pacific nation states, and non-traditional challenges, such as climate change and transnational crime, that may destabilise the South Pacific.
The Project included workshops and roundtables which brought together external experts and government officials in an effort to build genuinely strategic approaches to complex issues relating to a broad national and regional security issues. The findings of the project were published through analysis papers, a series of online articles in the Interpreter, and were presented to the Australian government and wider public in a conference in early 2018.
The South Pacific Fragile State Project was funded by the Australian Government’s Department of Defence.
Photo: Getty Images/DeAgostini
Potential drivers of unregulated population migration in the Pacific Islands require attention from regional governments including Australia.
Domestic developments in the Pacific Island states matter more than ever to Australia.
Greater Australian engagement in the Pacific Islands region is needed if Canberra wants to ensure regional stability and underpin Australia’s national security.
The United States used to think regularly about the islands of the South Pacific. On her tour of the region in 1943, Eleanor Roosevelt had a message for Americans troops stretched out across the Pacific Islands. “Every day”, she told them, Franklin Roosevelt “goes down to the map room in the White House and notes on the maps where you are and what you are doing”.
The previous year, FDR had pointed to the hundreds of islands in the South Pacific that “appear only as small dots on most maps”. But, lest anyone misjudge their importance, he declared that “they cover a large strategic area”.
Studying the geography of the South Pacific was a strategic necessity for fighting and winning the Second World War, but that was by no means the first or the last time American strategy focused on the region. As early as 1825, US president John Quincy Adams demanded a larger navy to ensure the “flourishing of commerce and fishery extending to the islands of the Pacific”. And as recently as 2012, secretary of state Hillary Clinton affirmed that America knew the Pacific Islands were “strategically and economically vital and becoming more so”.
The region remains strategically vital to the US for two key reasons. First, it is in US interests to prevent the emergence of a regional hegemon that could threaten America and its allies; and second, the US wants to maintain the free flow of goods and ideas to Asia.
The Trump administration put a new spin on this old concept with its call for a “free and open Indo-Pacific”, and broadened the strategic geography of the Western Pacific to extend into the Indian Ocean region. As both Michael Auslin and Rory Medcalf have been pointing out for the better part of a decade, the shift to focusing on the broader Indo-Pacific is long overdue, although it does risk privileging the “Indo” over the Pacific in American strategic thinking.
Given the rapidly shifting geopolitical landscape – or, more accurately, seascape – of the South Pacific, the region poses several strategic challenges to the US and its allies. As Australian National University’s Joanne Wallis has argued, over the past several years the South Pacific has seen the creation of alternative regional institutions, increasing Chinese investment and strategic focus, diminished New Zealand and Australian influence, and US strategic neglect.
As a result, while new sources of funding and development in the Pacific Islands have become available with less conditions, there has been environmental degradation, greater corruption and crime, and pressure on the long-term sustainability of natural resources, including fisheries. While none of these challenges is new, the increased number of external actors in the region has exacerbated them.
Moreover, fewer strings attached hardly ever means no strings attached. Indebted Pacific Islands need look no further than Sri Lanka, which recently had to hand over its deep-water port at Hambantota to China on a 99-year lease in exchange for urgently needed debt relief. This practice, dubbed “debt-trap diplomacy”, is a concern for smaller nations for whom the price of economic engagement is fast becoming political compliance. And, in the case of indebted littoral states with deep-water ports, such political compliance can have clear security implications.
From a military standpoint, no less from a commercial and diplomatic one, US presence in Asia is predicated on unfettered access. The US Naval War College’s Andrew Erickson has pointed out that as that access becomes more contested by China’s militarisation of outposts in the South China Sea and China’s development of long-range precision strike weapons, the strategic importance of American bases in the Pacific will grow.
Currently, the three Pacific Island nations of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and Palau are joined with the US in Compacts of Free Association. This allows the US to reject the strategic use of, or access to, compact states in exchange for political rights, development funding, and defence by the US.
But America’s special economic and political relationship with these sovereign states has recently come under stress. Were it to change, and China step into that vacuum, American bases in Guam and the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands could come under threat, and unimpeded sea lines of communication to American allies in Asia would become vulnerable to disruption.
Australia and New Zealand have recently announced a renewed focus on the Pacific Islands. As Anna Powles and Jose Sousa-Santos have previously pointed out, shifts within the regional order make it less clear that the Pacific Islands will be such ready partners if the terms of engagement are framed wholly in terms of strategic competition.
For the US, increasing aid and investment in the region, working to combat the effects of climate change, growing the capacity of the islands to police their waters and combat illegal fishing, strengthening anti-corruption norms, and ensuring that it expeditiously delivers funding to the compact states can all play a part here. But perhaps the biggest strategic challenge is one of time and attention paid to an important region that often slips under Washington’s radar.
Yale historian Paul Kennedy is best known for his famous 1987 work The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. But it is his first book, The Samoan Tangle, which explicitly deals with this region, that might be the most prescient. “Why”, Kennedy asked, “was so much written and debated about a small island group in the Pacific?” His answer, in large part, was overlapping interests – economic, strategic, and cultural – between the countries jostling for power in the South Pacific.
The South Pacific has once again become a region of great strategic competition and one worthy of much more attention. The US would be wise to further invest in ensuring that the Pacific nations retain their independence, freedom, and sovereignty, not only for the sake of US interests but also the benefit of the citizens of those countries.
The recently released Foreign Policy White Paper echoes the requirement in last year’s Defence White Paper for greater security cooperation with nations in the Indo-Pacific. Together, these two documents make it clear that international engagement by the Australian Defence Force (ADF) in the region is growing in importance. As such, the method in which the ADF conducts international engagement needs to be formalised in order to maximise the effectiveness of the Defence Cooperation Program. It is time for Defence to cultivate international engagement specialists within what could be described as a deployable ‘Joint International Development Group’.
The government delivers national security through the Strategy Framework. This framework seeks to provide clear links between the government’s strategic priorities through the establishment of a ‘strategy-led capability planning process’. It uses the classic strategic construct of ends (those things that need to be achieved), ways (the manner in which they will be achieved), and means (those resources required to prosecute the strategy).
The strategic end state of both Defence and Foreign Policy White Papers in the Pacific is explicitly stated as maintaining Australia’s position as ‘the principle security partner for Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste and Pacific island countries’. The way Australia will achieve this is primarily through the Defence Cooperation Program (DCP), which includes the Pacific Maritime Security Program (PMSP). Together, this allows Defence to fulfil its part in supporting the foreign policy aim of better coordinating ‘defence, police, intelligence, border and law and justice training’ in the Pacific.
The strategic direction is clear. The question that remains is what resources, or means, will Defence allocate to this task?
Historically, the DCP has concentrated on embedding a number of officers, warrant officers and senior non-commissioned officers as advisors in key positions within host nation militaries. Australia has also been critical in providing equipment and sustainment support. This has been augmented, as required, by short-term training teams taken from existing units in mainland Australia. While this has had some success, the ad hoc nature of these teams is less than ideal.
Mentoring and advising foreign forces requires a unique set of skills that not every soldier or officer possess. One of the most significant studies into the role of US advisors in training foreign militaries states:
At a minimum, an advisor needs to understand the local language, the local culture and values, the local military institutional ethos and how it works, his counterpart as a person in that foreign culture and constrained by that military institution, the local capabilities and limitations, and the specific local situation to comprehend what is going on around him and to preclude misunderstandings. Then it may be possible to offer advice suitable to the situation.
Two of Australia’s closest allies have recognised that to conduct these advisory roles requires specialist skill sets and training, and this year have set up specialist units dedicated to this military task. The US Army has established six Security Force Assistance Brigades who will undergo training at the Military Advisor Training Academy so that they are prepared to ‘train, advise and assist’ overseas partners. Likewise, the British Army has established a Specialised Infantry Group that will comprise of units geographically focused on specific areas of the globe with teams permanently deployed to ‘train, advise, assist and accompany’ local forces. The idea is that with individual battalions assigned to regions they will start to build a collective knowledge of the people and culture they will work among.
The ADF is a much smaller organisation, so it will be unable to devote the large numbers of personnel to the task that its US and British allies have. However, the ADF has the benefit of strategic guidance that is more clearly defined. Therefore, the focus for permanent international engagement for Defence should be the Indo-Pacific, in support of both the Defence White Paper’s second strategic defence objective and the Foreign Policy White Paper’s emphasis on the region.
The ADF needs to develop international engagement specialists, contained within a Joint International Development Group, that are trained to support embedded members of the DCP and the roll out of the PMSP. The organisation needs to be comprised of experienced officers and senior personnel from all three services who, like their British and US counterparts, are able to train, advise, assist and accompany local forces from countries in the Indo-Pacific region.
The breadth of this task is important as it will give the group flexibility. For example, consider a team deployed from the group to deliver urban operations training to the armed forces of the Philippines. This team may be restricted to training and advisory missions on military bases for political and force security issues. But a Navy team from the group sent to a Pacific island nation may accompany crews out to sea while assisting in the introduction to service of a patrol boat under the PMSP.
Equally important is the ability for the group to be able to maintain an internal rotation cycle so that the engagement can persist while also allowing for training (including in regional languages) and periods of leave to be undertaken while not deployed. Thus, a minimum of two identical teams per capability – for example two infantry training teams and two patrol boat teams – should allow for three month deployments to be balanced with training and leave requirements. The key is to allow for persistent engagement in the region without burning out the personnel or their families.
For ten years, the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam hand selected instructors, gave them mission specific training, and placed them where they could best improve the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam. The team reached a peak strength of only 217 members, yet had an effect far exceeding its limited numbers. A Joint International Development Group could have a similar effect throughout the Indo-Pacific and would provide a dedicated ‘means’ to deliver a key strategic end state for Australia.
With fleeting news coverage, President Tsai Ing-wen of the Republic of China last month concluded official visits to Marshall Islands, Solomon Islands and Tuvalu, three diplomatic allies of Taiwan in the South Pacific. No surprises occurred during her South Pacific trip, which was based on Tsai's 'steadfast diplomacy' programs – although there was an intriguing announcement during a transit stop in Hawaii.
Taiwan's aid has made an impressive contribution to the development of the three Pacific nations. Despite not having the status to participate in the UN or in most regional intergovernmental mechanisms, Taiwan has shown a willingness to serve a responsible role in the region. The launch of 'viable diplomacy' during Ma Ying-jeou's presidency, guided by Taiwan's White Paper on Foreign Aid Policy released in 2009, rebuffed views of Taiwan as a 'cheque-book diplomacy' player. Little has changed with the aid approach of the Tsai administration.
Taiwan has forged a special bond with these countries over some 20 or 30 years of friendship. This was demonstrated in 2009 after Typhoon Morakot killed more than 700 people in Taiwan and Tuvalu made a donation to the recovery of US$210,000 – then around 1% of Tuvalu's GDP. In another moving gesture at the time, a village in Solomon Islands raised a sum equivalent to approximately US$126 and made a 24-hour journey to deliver the donation directly to Taiwan's agricultural mission in Honiara.
Yet despite this evident good will, surveys show the Taiwanese public has reservations. Most believe aid to Pacific nations and Taiwan's allies is a waste. In Taiwan, unfortunately, the South Pacific allies have often been portrayed as 'poor, small, and black' countries coveting Taiwan's money.
It is undeniable that part of Taiwan's effort in this region has been focusing on winning official recognition while under pressure from Beijing. Each of the countries Tsai visited spoke in support of Taiwan's desire for meaningful participation in the UN.
But it seems that one Taiwan ally is wary of Tsai. Palau has sought closer relations with Beijing after a breakdown of the tacit 'diplomatic truce' between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait in spring 2016. A high-ranking official of Taiwan admitted that one of Taiwan's allies in the South Pacific was 'a little impish' in bargaining with Taiwan for more financial aid, which appears to be a reference to Palau. In late November, another high-ranking official of Taiwan confirmed the speculation, stating that Palau has been 'a case of some delicacy'.
The Beijing authorities did not oppose Tsai's visit to the south Pacific; mainland China has not openly attempted to intervene in Taiwan's engagement with its 20 allies. But Beijing did see 'little tricks' at play when Tsai made transit visits to Hawaii on her way to the region and to Guam on her way back to Taiwan. The US described the transit as 'private and unofficial' but the authorities in Beijing lodged complaints with Washington about Tsai's transits. As in most cases, the US has remained independent in accepting or denying Taiwan's request for transit, regardless of mainland China's opposition and protest.
What baffled many in Taiwan was Tsai's decision to make a transit stop in Hawaii, a US island that is not on the way from Taiwan to the South Pacific. This made Beijing doubt Tsai's real purpose. In Hawaii, she announced a boost to Taiwan's annual defence budget of at least 2%, and 3% if the arms acquisition requires – an announcement that appeared to be made with the hope of getting into the good graces of the Trump administration. As a token of appreciation, presumably, the US agreed to Tsai's request to transit in Hawaii.
Tsai's positive gesture in Hawaii towards a US arms sale to Taiwan was possibly also intended to act as a firewall against the small chance that Xi Jinping pushed Trump to reach a consensus that would be unfavourable to Taiwan.
For their part, Taiwan’s South Pacific allies care little for where Tsai makes transit stops and what she says en route, instead prioritising the continuation of Taiwan’s aid programs. But the potential appeal to engage with mainland China’s Belt and Road Initiative for developing allies demonstrates how Beijing can complicate Taiwan’s attempts to maintain diplomatic ties in the region.
The western and central Pacific Ocean is home to the world’s most productive tuna fisheries, supplying global markets with canned tuna, sashimi and other tuna products. Industrial catches of skipjack, yellowfin, bigeye, and albacore are collectively worth approximately US$5.7 billion per year and account for 57% of the global tuna catch.
Unlike the predominately high seas tuna fisheries in other oceans, the tuna fisheries of the western and central Pacific overwhelmingly occur in waters under national jurisdiction - largely within a small group of Pacific small island developing states. These tuna fisheries are the only significant resource for some Pacific island nations, particularly the atoll countries, and have long been viewed as the primary development opportunity. Tuna can contribute up to 75% of government revenue, provide important employment opportunities and a critical source of food.
While the Pacific small island states hold sovereign rights over the most productive tropical fishing grounds, most of the catch is taken by vessels owned by companies from distant countries, such as Japan, the US, Taiwan, China, South Korea and in the European Union. These foreign vessels may either be based in Pacific island countries (due to licensing or joint venture requirements) or operate from a distant port.
Conservation is increasingly a concern as some tuna and associated species are threatened by overfishing. In addition, fishing levels often exceed maximum economic yields, significantly influencing productivity and profitability.
For the past two years, the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) has been negotiating a replacement conservation measure to manage the tropical tuna fisheries for skipjack, yellowfin and bigeye. The WCPFC was established by treaty in 2004 with a mandate to ensure the long-term conservation and sustainable use of the region’s tropical tuna fisheries. The WCPFC comprises all of the key coastal and distant water fishing nations (including Australia) and meets annually.
For the past week, approximately 700 delegates from more than 30 countries and territories met in Manila and argued over the replacement measure. Despite two years of preparatory work, and some inspiring leadership from the chair - Rhea Moss-Christian from the Federated States of Micronesia - delegates struggled to reach agreement due to ongoing fault-lines between the developing small island states on one hand and developed distant water fishing nations on the other.
The WCPFC faces a complex challenge. Consistent with the WCPFC Convention, scientific assessments have recommended a precautionary approach that protects tuna stocks and maintains the integrity of the ecosystem. The challenge is complicated not only by trans-boundary issues, also that each species of tropical tuna is caught by different gear in a tightly inter-meshed manner that is difficult, if not impossible, to separate. The migratory characteristics of these tropical tuna fisheries make it difficult to sufficiently limit catches of vulnerable bigeye, for instance, without impacting on fleets targeting the more resilient skipjack.
Successful conservation will involve sharing the burden. Given present levels of overfishing, some or all WCPFC members must compromise and under international law, the commission must ensure that conservation measures do not place a disproportionate conservation burden on developing states. Simultaneously the global community has recognised the importance of fisheries to small island nations by 2030 under the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
Over the past week, developed distant water fishing nations paid lip service at best to the special requirements of small island nations. While Japan and the Pacific small islands countries drove negotiations for strong conservation measures, the US and China demanded increases in their limits above recommended levels. Under pressure from the US to limit participation, the chair cut most negotiations to heads-of-delegation only, undermining the ability of some small island countries to effectively participate without technical support staff, and destroying any pretence of transparency.
To reach agreement, Japan effectively gifted some of its unused limits from previous measures to China, while the US created a pool of all the unused potential limits from its Pacific territories to enable its Hawaiian longline fishing fleet to almost double its allowable quota.
The overall package of measures will not limit fisheries to scientifically recommended levels. But it does include two key provisions that offer hope. First, it establishes target reference points for skipjack, yellowfin and bigeye that will enable the development of long term harvest strategies. Second, the WCPFC agreed to establish a high seas allocation process to equitably distribute rights to the high seas fisheries. The Pacific small island nations had already allocated and limited their exclusive economic zone fisheries under the sub-regional Palau Arrangement. Now it is time to allocate rights for the high seas fisheries.
The two provisions allow the WCPFC a chance to resolve its ongoing conflict and answer important equity questions that are fundamental to conservation negotiations in the Pacific. This would modernise fisheries management, to explicitly determine what conservation burden each state should carry depending on their development characteristics. This approach is already evident in climate change negotiations, where there are principles of differentiated responsibilities between developed and developing states.
Equity concerns are fundamental. The WCPFC currently struggles to address these concerns in an ad hoc process for each conservation measure, leading to deeply political and economic arguments within a management and science framework that is not suited to this task. This framework inevitably becomes politicised as members propose conservation measures that best protect their own interests, and refute conservation arguments that don’t.
Hopefully, the WCPFC has now let a little light in. The new harvest strategy and allocation processes will open the way to negotiate transparent and equitable rules to manage these crucial fisheries.
What a difference 14 years make. The launch of the Foreign Policy White Paper on Thursday, the first since 2003, marks the strongest commitment by Australia to the Pacific region in recent memory. The last white paper had a section heading ‘What Australia can and cannot do to help’ in relation to the Pacific. No such caveats in the new document, which places supporting the development of Pacific island nations as a key foreign policy aim.
Yet while an emphasis on an enduring partnership with Papua New Guinea and supporting Timor-Leste was expected, the multiple references to the Pacific island states of Nauru, Kiribati and Tuvalu was more surprising. These are small nations, yet Nauru is mentioned more times than France and Tuvalu more times than Iran. All three are identified as a priority focus for a new Pacific Labour Scheme, while Australia has concluded security memoranda with Nauru and Tuvalu.
Is this White Paper setting the scene for the formal establishment of free compact state agreements with these Pacific island nations?
There are already a number of independent Pacific island states that are in free compacts, or free associations, with larger metropole countries. In Micronesia, the three nations of Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of the Marshall Islands - known collectively as the free compact states – have a Compact of Free Association with the United States. In essence, this means that the governments of these nations consult with the US on foreign affairs issues. Washington also has ‘full authority and responsibility for security and defence matters’ in return for US government services, the opportunity for Pacific Islanders to work in the US, and annual grants. Likewise, the Cook Islands and Niue are self-governing states in free association with New Zealand, which discharges foreign and defence responsibilities on their behalf.
So, is Australia edging closer to free compact agreements with Nauru, Tuvalu and Kiribati and, if so, why? The Foreign Policy White Paper provides clues to answer both questions.
Firstly, the bilateral security agreements with Nauru and Tuvalu are specifically aimed at targeting transnational organised crime, to build border security capacity and combat health threats. The first two will require close cooperation with the Department of Defence and the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. Less explicit, but almost certainly linked, is the statement that Australia will ‘assist some countries to develop national security strategies’. These policies support the strategic defence objective in last year’s Defence White Paper of a ‘secure nearer region, encompassing maritime South East Asia and the South Pacific’.
Second, the expansion of government services to these three countries fit the free association model. Australia will provide testing services to improve the quality and reliability of pharmaceuticals in Nauru and Tuvalu, while the White Paper explicitly states that Nauru, Tuvalu and Kiribati will be prioritised in an expanded labour mobility program.
Alone these announcements do not answer why Australia would want to enter into a compact of free association with these countries. That is found elsewhere in the White Paper.
The language regarding China’s rise is bolder than Australia has previously used. The White Paper specifically states that ‘[i]n parts of the Indo-Pacific… China’s power and influence are growing to match, and in some cases exceed, that of the United States’. It is noted that China will seek to influence the region to suit its own interests and that economic power is being used for strategic ends. As a result, the White Paper encourages China to ‘exercise its power in a way that enhances stability, reinforces international law and respects the interests of smaller countries’. Yet the underlying message throughout the paper is this cannot be taken for granted.
If Australia were to incorporate Nauru, Tuvalu and Kiribati into a compact of free association, it would deny China the ability to become the dominant external influence in these three countries. Looked at on a global map, this would in effect extend and deepen the second island chain formed by the US Free Compact States and enhance Australia’s alliance with the US. It would also give the citizens of Nauru, Tuvalu and Kiribati the right to work in Australia, and would provide government services to the governments of those island nations in return for Australian consultation on foreign policy issues and exclusive military use of the islands.
The overall message of the Foreign Policy White Paper is that nothing can be taken for granted in the future, and as a result Australia needs to ‘engage with the Pacific with greater intensity and ambition’ and make ‘substantial long-term investments in the region’s development’.
It is time to be truly innovative and match policy to ambition. Australia should set the establishment of a Compact of Free Association with Nauru, Tuvalu and Kiribati as a foreign policy priority for the Pacific. It would not only benefit the three Pacific island nations, but would form a key part of providing maritime security in the region and, as such, would support Australia’s national strategic defence objectives.
Richard Marles' address to the Lowy Institute this week was delivered with a rare eloquence. Marles is an impressive orator with genuine knowledge of the region gained over many years. As a colleague of mine commented quietly afterwards, if this is what Marles is like in opposition, imagine what he would be like in government. Indeed, Marles did more than ponder Australia's role in the Pacific; he also went a long way toward establishing his credentials as a future Foreign Minister. But his address ignored the elephant in the room when it comes to leading in the Pacific.
Part of the attraction of Marles' speech was its classical construction, reminiscent of a Greek tragedy of three parts. In the prologue, Marles painted a vivid picture of the very personal problems faced by Pacific Islanders. He transported the audience into the dense and basic living conditions endured by those who live in Betio on South Tarawa in Kiribati. That a person could live in such conditions 'deeply challenges your understanding of the ways life on this earth can be led', he said. 'I've seen refugee camps in Africa, slums in Bangladesh. But the worst human circumstances I've ever witnessed are here on the islet of Betio.' The scene was set.
Act Two was a comprehensive analysis of the complexities surrounding Australian involvement in the region. Marles convincingly argued that for too long Australia has focused on foreign policy priorities in Europe, the US, even the Middle East, while ignoring the countries on our doorstep. That is not to say Australia is not engaged in the region; the Pacific is the largest regional recipient of Australian development assistance, a sum that far surpasses other donor nations. Yet, Marles argued, the commitment of resources to Pacific Island nations in the absence of a vision or debate regarding Australia's role in the region has led to a 'holding pattern policy in the Pacific'.
The most striking aspect of Act Two was how Marles gave the most articulate and passionate description of the effect of climate change in the region I have heard from any politician of either major party. 'For countries that consist of thin strips of land only a few metres above sea level, climate change is an existential issue. It is happening now,' he said. 'When we don't uphold our responsibility to speak with a Pacific voice, as has been the case on climate change in recent years, our reputation suffers.' The political courage to acknowledge both the effects of climate change and Australia's past failings to show leadership in this area should not be underestimated. Marles deserves credit for highlighting this important point.
Act Two concluded with a call for Australia to show greater regional leadership to support neighbouring Pacific Island nations. The case had been made and the audience was enthralled. All that remained was for Marles to offer solid proposals for Australia to provide greater leadership in the region.
Act Three of the speech should have provided a conclusion that demonstrated Marles and the Opposition could indeed provide the visionary leadership for engagement in the Pacific that he claims Australia has failed to show over the last few decades. Instead, Marles proposed slightly broadening the scope of the Defence Cooperation Program, which Australia has with the three Pacific Island nations that have a defence force, and extending 'government actions to assist the functions of government in the Pacific'. As Australia does both of these things already, in essence the sum total of Marles' recommendations to address the issues he had so beautifully articulated was to do a little bit more of what we already do. After such a strong speech, it was sadly underwhelming.
The key omission from Marles' policy proposals was climate change. As I have written before, Australia's position as the world's largest coal exporter does not sit easy with many Pacific Islanders. Having identified the existential threat climate change poses to the very nations Marles wants to support, he made no mention of combating it. Indeed, when a questioner asked him about tuna fishing and climate change after his address, he chose to ignore the latter.
Marles is obviously a talented orator and a politician of conviction who cares about the Pacific region. He wants Australia to do more for our island neighbours and has been rightly applauded for this address. Yet passion alone will not be enough. We need our politicians to also articulate sound policy proposals that will comprise the very vision that Marles has called for.
My colleague Jonathon Pryke has outlined some very practical proposals, which I wholeheartedly support. But without leadership on climate change, which includes the re-examination of our coal policy, the region will not see Australia as a true leader that speaks with a Pacific voice.
Protecting fish stocks from illegal fishing is of critical importance to the economy, food security and stability of Pacific Island countries. This makes Australia’s efforts to bolster the aerial surveillance capability of the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA) a particularly valuable investment in our regional relationships. Not only will it help address one of the greatest criminal threats to economic sovereignty in the South Pacific region, the program will develop local enforcement capability and provide Australia a way for deeper regional cooperation.
This initiative also represents a significant new model of support to the South Pacific. Australia and other partners in the region should consider how additional funding could further capitalise on this investment in the maritime surveillance capability of South Pacific nations and reinforce regional ties.
Australia will fund contracted aerial surveillance as part of the new Pacific Maritime Security Program (PMSP) with a budget from the Defence department. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has described the program as “the centrepiece of Australia's defence engagement in the South Pacific” and the program will also include gifting 19 patrol vessels to island nations to replace the ageing Pacific Class patrol boats.
Aerial surveillance allows for much more efficient coverage of the exclusive economic zones and adjacent high-seas areas of the 15 nations in the FFA, a combined area of more than 21 million square kilometres. Working in conjunction with patrol boats, aerial surveillance may allow rapid enforcement action to investigate potential illegal fishing activity.
The contracted model will cost Australia an estimated $10-15 million annually. Using civilian patrol aircraft has advantages. As they do not need the full functionality to serve military applications, they can be expected to have substantially lower operating costs. The contracted planes will be able to provide much more flexible and responsive support than is possible with military aircraft, which are usually tasked through donor-nation military channels. This will provide a cost-effective additional surveillance capability to complement continuing surveillance support provided by the Quadrilateral Defence Coordinating Group, which involves Australia, the US, France and New Zealand.
However what makes this model significant is how it serves to strengthen regional cooperation. Aerial surveillance now provides FFA with a capability that is directly under its control. This will require South Pacific nations to work together as FFA members to determine surveillance priorities.
Managing aerial surveillance operations may also provide the context for greater levels of information sharing in the region. Central to this is the Niue Treaty Subsidiary Agreement (NTSA), agreed by FFA members in 2014 and ratified by Australia in July this year. The NTSA allows the various jurisdictions to share information related to law enforcement, of which aerial surveillance will become a primary data source.
Yet, as beneficial as the initiative is, the allocation of $10-15 million per year cannot be expected to provide comprehensive coverage across a 21 million square kilometre operating area. By comparison, the Australian Border Force’s maritime surveillance contract is worth approximately AUD$84 million annually to patrol an area that is less than 40% of the Pacific region. The FFA will need to constantly balance between scope and thoroughness of coverage to get the best effect from the system. The vast distances involved in the Pacific also means a considerable proportion of the contracted air hours will be needed for transit between locations, rather than for patrolling.
Having already established a contract and invested in this capability, any additional funding should allow for a higher proportion of the total air hours to be dedicated to surveillance patrolling. More money is likely to yield a disproportionate increase in patrolling time given the system already in place. This gives Australia an opportunity – either by providing additional funding or encouraging contributions from like-minded powers – to greatly increase the value of this support to the region.
By enhancing the region’s ability to monitor and control their own resources, PMSP aerial surveillance aims to better assist Pacific Island nations to safeguard regional economic stability and maritime security. To get the best from its investment, Australia should consider modest increase. This will substantially lift regional resilience, through the better protection of economic resources, greater capability of law enforcement and to reinforce Pacific cooperation.