Australia must stop viewing the Pacific as its neighbourhood to fix
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Australia must stop viewing the Pacific as its neighbourhood to fix

As the nation heads toward an election, recent events in the Solomon Islands are a reminder that strong economic relationships with Pacific countries are important to security. Originally published in the Australian Financial Review.

Pacific countries often say they do not want to be drawn into geopolitics. All have adopted a “friends to all and enemies to none” foreign policy. However, the proposed security agreement between China and the Solomon Islands shows that geopolitics is well and truly thriving.

Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare has said the Solomon Islands, a nation of about 700,000 people, was not taking sides. But the agreement has an immediate effect on every country in the region and it is very much connected, at least on the Chinese side, to geostrategic ambitions. An agreement such as this changes the regional order.

In Australia, security analysts watched the story unfold with a mixture of dread because of the potential blow to Canberra’s strategic interests, and vindication that years of assessments about China’s military intent in the Pacific had seemingly been confirmed overnight. In the political arena, accusations came thick and fast that the federal government had “dropped the ball” in the Pacific and that diplomacy in the region had failed.

Some who had in the past been critical of the motivations behind Australia’s Pacific Step-Up – narrowly defined as pushing back against China’s influence in the Pacific – were now saying it had not done enough. There were calls for greater Australian leadership.

Sogavare has said a security treaty with China was finalised and ready to be signed. Details of the draft agreement were leaked last week and reveal proposals granting potentially extensive reach into the Solomon Islands for Chinese security personnel and military assets. Transparency provisions set out that the Solomon Islands government would not be able to disclose activities carried out under the agreement without permission from China.

Sogavare has been strident in his defence of the proposed agreement, incensed by criticism that it would destabilise the region, or suggestions that the Solomon Islands had been coerced or duped into striking the bargain with the Communist power.

He insists he is walking into the partnership with eyes wide open. There are domestic security dividends in such a deal for Sogavare, whose latest term in power has been filled with instability and unrest in the capital Honiara. Ironically, it is partly because of his push to bring the Solomon Islands and China closer together.

The final details are yet to be revealed. Regardless of its contents, a security agreement between the Solomon Islands and China implies a degree of trust and closeness in the two countries’ relations – much like AUKUS does between Australia, Britain and the US.

Pursuing new opportunities

As Australia heads towards an election, recent events in the Solomon Islands serve as a reminder that our relationships with Pacific countries are important to our security.

Australia demonstrates leadership in the region by being the largest aid donor and primary guarantor of security in the Pacific, not least of which through our comprehensive contributions to regional COVID-19 and natural disaster responses. Australia’s climate change policies have for years fallen far short of regional expectations. However, climate change can hardly explain Solomon Islands’ security partnership with China, the world’s biggest emitter and largest producer of coal.

It is important for Australia to continue to provide development assistance to the Solomon Islands and other Pacific countries. But for Pacific countries to transition to economic independence, Australia should pursue opportunities for greater economic integration with the region.

In its approach to the Pacific, China has used the language of economic cooperation. It has not tried to outspend Australia on aid in the Pacific and, if anything, appears to have scaled back this arm of statecraft in recent years. Despite controversies around Chinese business practices in major resource and infrastructure projects throughout the region, China remains the main customer for Pacific goods and resources.

China has substantial economic relationships with Pacific Island countries. The sheer scale of China’s economy always promises more opportunities over the horizon. It would be folly to write off the success with which China has gained traction in the Pacific as “briefcase diplomacy” or the naivety of Pacific nations.

The Australian government has recently committed to stabilising the shrinking aid budget, alongside some rhetorical contortions to demonstrate increased allocations for the Pacific. If the objective is to grow Australia’s influence in the Pacific, or to hedge against further Chinese strategic incursion in the region, more of the same – with a little bit extra on the side – will not cut it.

Current standard won’t cut it

Australia should not just view the Pacific as its neighbourhood to fix. The Pacific is a region of global geopolitical significance. Perhaps, rather than more Australian leadership, now is the time for more partnership with the region. Australia may be able to draw some lessons from the Compacts of Free Association that northern Pacific states have with the US, granting them enhanced access to the US labour market and other health and economic benefits along with close defence co-operation.

Likewise, as the US plans to open its embassy in the Solomon Islands and develop its engagement in the region, it could benefit from Australia’s expertise and on-the-ground relationships throughout the Pacific.

Increasing Australia’s influence in the Pacific can’t just be about increasing aid dollars. Australia needs to reconsider how it invests in its relationships with Pacific countries and how it contributes to their priorities of achieving sustainable economic prosperity.

The existential threat of climate change to many communities in the Pacific is one issue that does need to be addressed. But beyond this, Pacific countries require economic partnerships that are deeper and more substantial than what the current labour scheme can offer them.

Areas of expertise: Australian foreign policy in the Pacific; Australia-PNG relations; geopolitics in the Pacific; Melanesia; conflict analysis and fragile states