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Keep Calm and Step Up: The White Paper's message on the Pacific

Coy about China, the government studiously avoids any sense of alarm about the region.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop in 2015 at a Pacific roundtable (Photo: @JulieBishopMP/Twitter)
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop in 2015 at a Pacific roundtable (Photo: @JulieBishopMP/Twitter)

The White Paper describes stepping up ‘support for a more resilient Pacific and Timor-Leste’ as one of only five ‘objectives of fundamental importance to Australia’s security and prosperity’. This gives the Pacific unusual prominence in a document of this nature. Even so, the rationale for the Pacific’s inclusion in this list of five top priorities is never made entirely explicit.

The closest the White Paper comes to giving an explanation is in Chapter 7, which is devoted to the Pacific. The language in that chapter sits comfortably within a long tradition of Australian thinking about the immediate neighbourhood, one that sees the region as both as a potential source of, and as a vector for, threats against Australia. Put another way, the argument is that Australia’s national security (and to some degree our prosperity) depends both on stability within regional states, and on our ability to prevent external players from influencing or using regional states in ways that damage our interests.

The White Paper contains strong declaratory language committing Australia to engage with the region ‘with greater intensity and ambition’. It also explicitly singles out the importance of the bilateral relationship with Papua New Guinea (something that has already been noted in Port Moresby). Much of the detail of the chapter has already been flagged in public statements, including in Julie Bishop’s important speech in Suva in August. The government’s self-described ‘step-up’ in Australia’s approach towards the Pacific (DFAT has deliberately avoided using the word ‘Strategy’) is envisaged to take place across three domains: economic/trade; security; and people-to-people links.

This isn’t a bad agenda and there would have been no point in the White Paper reinventing policy on any of this. Even so, it is worth noting that the White Paper endorses significant ideas such as the extension of selected Australian government services into the Pacific, and access for Pacific islanders to the Australian labour market. While these ideas aren’t necessarily entirely new, including them in the White Paper gives them a status that they have not previously enjoyed.

Perhaps the most striking statement about the Pacific in the White Paper is the assertion that Australia’s approach to the region will henceforth include ‘helping to integrate Pacific countries in the Australian and New Zealand economies and our security institutions’. While some aspects of earlier or existing Australian policy towards the region may have been directed towards these ends, the reference to integration as an explicit policy objective marks an important inflection point in Australian policy towards the region.

The announcement contained in the White Paper that an Australia Pacific Security College is to be established is one of the few elements of the ‘step-up’ that had not already been flagged. This can be seen as something of a down payment on a commitment to much closer integration in the security sphere. We await details of the new college.

The tone of Chapter 7 on the Pacific is notably flat: this is presumably deliberate. The language in this chapter studiously avoids any sense of alarm about the region’s development trends, about the risks of fragmentation of the Pacific’s diplomatic architecture or about the geostrategic risks posed by China, something that is given prominence elsewhere in the White Paper. Indeed, China is mentioned only indirectly in this chapter, in references to ‘other sources’ [of aid and loans] and to the Pacific’s ‘outside partners’. This seems remarkably coy when set against the language used in other parts of the White Paper and reads like an attempt to quarantine the Pacific from the broader geostrategic trends and risks described elsewhere in the White Paper, or at least to downplay their significance and relevance in the Pacific.

While Chapter 7 does acknowledge ‘increasing competition for influence and economic opportunities’ in the region, it simply promises that Australia will engage with the Pacific’s ‘outside partners to encourage them to work in a manner that strengthens cooperation, builds more sustainable and resilient economies and maintain stability’. What Chapter 7 doesn’t address directly is the risk that ‘outside partners’ (ie, China) might in fact work in ways that are contrary to our interests, and might not be interested in listening to us – and what we might do in those circumstances. We are some distance here, rhetorically at least, from the forward-leaning language of the 2016 Defence White Paper which commits Australia to work ‘to limit the influence of any actor from outside the [Pacific] region with interests inimical to our own.’

What seems to be going on is an attempt to balance a couple of key imperatives: on the one hand, the wish to project a sense of national self-confidence about our ability to exercise leadership and to set the agenda in the Pacific; on the other hand, the desire to stress that our leadership will be benign and undertaken ‘in partnership’ with Pacific island countries (and Timor-Leste) on the basis of ‘shared interests’. This is of a piece with the government's avoidance of the word 'Strategy' in describing its approach. The focus is on what we can do to enhance our own efforts, not what we can do, or might have to do, to counter the efforts of others.

Interestingly, that is not a million miles from the sort of approach towards the Pacific that was advocated by the Labor’s Richard Marles only last week. It is certainly gratifying to see bipartisan support for a stronger focus on the Pacific region. Against this background, the Foreign Policy White Paper talks a good game on the Pacific and should be welcomed by those with an interest in Australia’s immediate region.

And yet ... We are left with a question: do we have the wherewithal – the resources, the attention span, and the diplomatic and political capital – to fulfil the promise of bringing ‘greater intensity and ambition’ to our approach in the Pacific? On the first of these elements, the answer is (probably) yes; on the second, history cautions that there might be room for doubt, at both the political and institutional levels; on the third, we must acknowledge that this is not entirely in our hands, that notwithstanding our indispensability in the region, there are forces are at work in the Pacific that we do not control and will find difficulty in influencing. The government has set itself a high bar.

A footnote: consistent with the steady-as-she-goes tone of Chapter 7, the White Paper commits Australia ‘to continue to support the Papua New Guinea and autonomous Bougainville governments to implement the 2001 Peace Agreement, which underpins peace and stability in Bougainville.’ This has been stated policy since 2001 and it has served Australia well. Even so, given the increasing risk of the Peace Agreement breaking down as the deadline for a referendum on Bougainville approaches, there would seem to be an increasingly strong element of wishful thinking in this formulation.

Pacific Research Program

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