Commentary |
29 April 2022

Australia needs to find the right role in the Pacific

Australia’s financial aid program in Pacific Island nations has not delivered the influence that we hoped for. Now we need to get a better idea of what the region really might want from us. Originally published in the Financial Review.

Mihai Sora
Mihai Sora

It’s hard to recall any Australian election where our relationships with Pacific Island countries have been hotly debated. The Solomon Islands-China security deal has triggered schoolyard taunting from senior party figures on both sides of politics about who dropped the ball.

Amid the taunts, there has been forensic scrutiny of the size of the aid budget – and whether it has been bigger under Labor or Coalition leadership.

Under any government, it’s easy to demonstrate that Australia has spent more in Solomon Islands than China – the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands cost $2.6 billion. By contrast, the most recent available data on China’s aid contribution to Solomon Islands was about $50 million committed in 2019. Australia spent three times more in the same year.

Increasing our aid budget will certainly deliver better development outcomes for Solomon Islands and the rest of the Pacific. But it will not buy Australia more influence.

The security deal is about fulfilling a political need for Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, not about a security need for the people of Solomon Islands. Fixating on how much aid money was or was not spent misses the point. More importantly, Australia needs to reconsider how it engages with Pacific Island countries.

The Pacific Step-up aimed to deliver better relationships for Australia in the region. In so doing, so the thinking went, Australia would push back against increasing Chinese government influence. But underneath the hood of the Pacific Step-up is largely the same old engine of Australian engagement with the Pacific – our aid program and contributions to regional security. It has been largely supply-driven.

Recent developments in Solomon Islands demonstrate that the Pacific Step-up has not delivered the influence we expected. This is because the step-up and ties with China deliver different things to Pacific countries.

A need for greater creativity

The step-up has undoubtedly contributed to Pacific countries’ health, gender, education, governance, disaster response and economic development priorities. But there are areas where Australia can be more creative, build new partnerships and expand the depth of these achievements.

Critically, the step-up has not delivered demonstrable economic impacts in comparison with China’s more visible contributions, including large-scale infrastructure and trade (China reportedly received more than half of all seafood, wood, and minerals exported from the region in 2019).

Economic security is among the most pressing concerns for the region, particularly after the hardship wrought by COVID-19. Pacific countries justifiably prioritise addressing basic needs and maintaining livelihoods – wealth inequality and youth bulges across the region put stresses on social cohesion and contribute to instability and tensions in communities.

New initiatives to create migration pathways into Australia, such as the proposed Pacific Engagement Visa, are a good start to strengthening both people-to-people links and delivering mutual economic benefit for Australia and the Pacific, for example through remittances.

Bolstering democratic institutions across the region helps to preserve the rights of Pacific communities and improve governance, resulting in better-quality public policy. Support for civil society strengthens local voices in their pursuit of political and social reforms in their local contexts.

Australia should look for opportunities to work with the US, Japan, New Zealand, Britain and France, as well as technology companies, to deliver strategic infrastructure investments, cyber security and digital connectivity in partnership with Pacific countries.

Broadcasting and sport

Australia’s recent support for Telstra’s purchase of the Pacific’s largest telecommunications provider, Digicel, is a good example of this. As internet infrastructure improves, social media is playing an increasingly important role in providing access to information, government services, global markets and cultural links.

Broadcast media also plays a vital social service in the Pacific, disseminating information to remote communities and increasing public engagement in national political and social issues. A greater Australian media presence throughout the region, as well as more support for Pacific journalists and local media content production, would improve Pacific literacy in Australia and support a vital pillar of social and cultural development in Pacific countries.

Sport is a natural connector between Australia and the Pacific. Both women’s and men’s rugby and soccer are hugely popular in the Pacific and are probably where our strongest cultural connections currently lie. Twinning arrangements between clubs, scholarships and Australian sports volunteers to match other local sports interests would be well-received.

Education builds the foundations for economic development across the Pacific. In addition to tertiary scholarships, scholarships at secondary level and more teacher exchanges and hands-on support to delivering education, prioritising girls and STEM, would not only deliver social benefits but also contribute to addressing the challenges of the youth bulge across Pacific countries.

Building stronger connections with the Pacific is not something that our politicians alone can do, no matter how many times they meet with regional counterparts. In fact, experience shows leaders-level meetings can sometimes be counterproductive to improving ties. Nor is it something that any single government department can do alone – especially after years of budget cuts to Australia’s diplomatic service under successive governments.

The Pacific Step-up has undoubtedly delivered improved relations for Australia in the Pacific. But its resources have been spread thin across a vast range of activities. To achieve greater depth of engagement, the step-up needs to evolve into an Australian Pacific strategy involving international partners, federal and state government agencies, as well as business and community groups.

Now is the time for Australia to reconsider its relationships with the region and to understand what we want from the Pacific. But, more importantly, it’s time for Australia to understand what the Pacific really wants from us.

That is why a new strategy should be underpinned by principles of genuine partnership with the region, promoting economic independence, global connectivity, and a shared understanding of regional collective security.