Diplomacy must lead Australia's efforts in the Pacific, and adequate funding is crucial
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Diplomacy must lead Australia's efforts in the Pacific, and adequate funding is crucial

A commentary first published in The Canberra Times on 17 May 2023. 

The Defence Strategic Review recognises that diplomacy, development and defence will have to work together to meet Australia's security needs in a period of heightened global uncertainty and increasing contestation in the Pacific. This recognises that the benefits of the international rules-based order that has prevailed since the end of WWII are not self-evident to all in the region.

The fact that most countries in the Pacific have repeatedly said they do not want to "choose sides" in the competition for global strategic primacy between the US and China is by now well understood in Canberra. But this is a lesson whose gristle is getting stuck in the teeth of the US as it seeks to rally support to retain the balance of power in our region, using the narrative of shared democratic values and human rights.

A peaceful, stable, and democratic Pacific region is critical to Australia's national security. As Australia, with like-minded partners, strives to preserve the international rules-based order, we need to convince our neighbours to come along with us - at least some distance. For this, we're going to need diplomacy.

In the 12 months since her appointment, Foreign Minister Penny Wong has achieved a commendable feat of visiting over 30 nations in our region, some of them more than once. Ministerial visits generally deliver a shot in the arm to bilateral relations with the host country, but it would be unreasonable to expect the Minister to keep up such a frenetic pace of visits to the Pacific, given competing priorities. Australia must rely on our posted diplomats to maintain and strengthen the relationships with countries in the Pacific, whose trajectories are of key importance for our own security and prosperity.

The signing of the China-Solomon Islands security pact last year demonstrated how poor development outcomes and lack of depth in our relationships with Pacific countries can have a direct impact on Australia's national security. The late eminent foreign policy thinker Allan Gyngell labelled it a "failure of Australian diplomacy". The consequences of that agreement for regional security are still unfolding.

While Australia shares both geography and common values with Pacific countries, there are enduring tensions in our relationships - climate change being the most obvious example. Australia's profound economic reliance on fossil fuels means climate change will continue to present complications for our relations with Pacific countries.

Diplomacy is often seen as little more than cocktail parties and ribbon-cutting. But it is about managing relationships across cultural, language and political barriers.

Well-staffed, well-resourced and well-informed diplomacy is how Australia can manage its complex relationships with countries that, while part of the same "Pacific family", can have significantly different perspectives on international security issues, including climate change.

Second among equals

The reality is that DFAT remains the poor cousin of all other agencies working to prosecute Australia's national interest abroad. The government announced a $1.9 billion package of additional assistance for the Pacific in last week's budget, which included an allocation of $457 million for DFAT to boost its diplomatic capabilities. But the bulk of this will go towards paying the rent and upgrading DFAT's ageing secure communications network. This funding is remedial in nature, akin to keeping the lights on, rather than a genuine uplift to Australian diplomacy.

The lion's share of the extra funding is aimed at providing security and economic support to Pacific countries, through Defence, AFP and other agencies' activities, and additional funding for Pacific labour mobility schemes.

The security assistance is directed at important issues such as policing and law enforcement, maritime surveillance, and support for cyber-security. It is particularly timely to see increased Australian support for cyber incident response in the Pacific after recent attacks that brought down government systems in Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea. The extra funding builds on efforts by Australia to expand security cooperation with Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Kiribati and Vanuatu. These are all worthwhile initiatives.

Diplomacy is often seen as little more than cocktail parties and ribbon-cutting. But it is about managing relationships across cultural, language and political barriers, shaping views of key actors whose decisions have a direct bearing on Australia's own prosperity, and delivering unvarnished insights to an Australian government looking for certainty in an uncertain world. It should be resourced commensurate with this tasking, should be valued alongside other agencies working at the pointy end of Australia's national security efforts.

But the government's latest budget falls short on setting aside adequate resources for diplomacy, even as Australian ministers acknowledge that our diplomats are the frontline of Australia's engagement with the region.

Several commentators have also outlined how Australia's overall contribution to international development goals continues its downward slide. This places Australia among the least generous wealthy nations in the world when it comes to contributing to global development priorities, a core part of the international rules-based order.


Boosting Australian diplomatic capability

Australia boasts the largest number of diplomatic missions in the Pacific, with representation in every member of the Pacific Islands Forum. These missions need to be reinforced with development, public diplomacy and communications specialists.

DFAT needs to fund and incentivise more people to go overseas to Indo-Pacific postings and foster the core skills of influence and relationship-building. Realistically, there is limited scope for Australia to have a genuinely global presence, so the department needs to prioritise and reward Australian diplomats who are experts in and understand their own region.

The budget has a commitment to boost DFAT's public diplomacy and strategic communications capabilities in Canberra. However, these specialists would have the most impact when posted overseas. And there are baked-in cultural barriers to a more outward-facing diplomatic service that need to be addressed.

Strategic communication and effective public outreach are vital in the Pacific's contested information space. While Australia promotes the narrative of the international rules-based order in the Pacific, China uses the language of South-South cooperation to diminish Australia's deep historical and cultural links with the Pacific and to emphasise differences between Australia and Pacific countries.

The degree to which China's increasing security presence in the Pacific presents risks to the security and economic order of the region is a matter of perspective. While Australia views the China-Solomon Islands security pact as a game-changing moment, Pacific Island countries typically do not share the same degree of concern as they do not consider themselves imperilled by China's strategic ambitions.

Pacific countries are focused on economic development and climate change and eschew geopolitical jostling. Australia needs to do a better job proving to Pacific leaders that we have the same stakes in maintaining the regional balance of power. We are part of the Pacific family, and we do share a love of sport, but there is still much work to be done to achieve a common understanding on critical security issues. And most of it cannot be conducted from inside a nuclear-powered submarine. It is the work of diplomacy.

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