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Thursday 24 Aug 2017 | 19:13 | SYDNEY
Thursday 24 Aug 2017 | 19:13 | SYDNEY

Rudd neglects friends in the Pacific

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COMMENTS

21 March 2011 13:25

While Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd has been busy pursuing Australian foreign policy interests in North Africa and managing the consular response to the earthquakes in New Zealand and Japan, he is unlikely to have had time to keep an eye on the neighbourhood.

This is probably not helping to counter perceptions of gradual erosion of Australian diplomatic influence in the Pacific Islands region (this despite very generous aid spending and a successful hosting of the Pacific Islands Forum in Cairns in August 2009). Even Hillary Clinton has found time to worry about the Pacific in the last month.

Nowhere is the decline of Australia's diplomatic influence in the Pacific more apparent than in Fiji. Fiji's Prime Minister, Frank Bainimarama, is due to host the Melanesia Spearhead Group (MSG) leaders' summit on 31 March. It will be an occasion for Bainimarama to demonstrate regional leadership and thumb his nose again at Australia, which he blames for the delay in him taking the Chair of the MSG.

The more interesting aspect of this particular leaders' summit is that both East Timor and Indonesia will participate as observers, and that Luxembourg has been invited as a special guest

Indonesia's invitation has predictably frustrated the West Papuan independence movement, which is used to having its agenda pursued by Vanuatu at MSG meetings. This article in the Vanuatu Daily Post questions whether Indonesian aid had encouraged the MSG to issue an invitation to Jakarta. Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono announced new areas for cooperation when he visited PNG in March 2010 but it's unlikely this is the main motivation behind the MSG's agreement to grant Indonesia observer status.

Indonesia and East Timor at least have genuine interest in and sympathies with the members of the MSG. But the invitation to the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg is a little odd. 

Luxembourg is the second smallest member of the EU, which is a major donor in the region. But it does not hold the rotating presidency so is unlikely to be formally representing the EU. Although Luxembourg is one of only five countries to spend more than 0.7% of their GNI on aid, it does not appear to extend this largesse as far the Pacific Islands. If the lure of aid was the determining factor for an invitation, surely China, which funds the MSG Secretariat, would have merited an invitation.

Could it be that Luxembourg, a competitor for Australia's candidacy for a temporary seat at the UN Security Council, is seeking an opportunity to lobby for more votes' And is this really any stranger than Kevin Rudd speaking at the African Union'

The members of the Pacific Islands Forum (excluding Fiji) first committed to support Australia's candidacy for a 2013-14 temporary seat at the UN Security Council in 2008 and reiterated that support last year. Canberra would hardly have been counting on Suva's vote, and an invitation to the MSG was never in prospect. But DFAT might want to be checking that Port Moresby, Honiara and Port Vila remember their commitments.

The strenuous efforts of Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs, Richard Marles, in flying the Australian flag all over the Pacific, are undoubtedly constructive and praise-worthy, but they only partly compensate for the Foreign Minister's lack of attention. Mr Rudd is yet to visit any Pacific Island country as Foreign Minister. His last bilateral visit to the region – to Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands — was in March 2008 when he was Prime Minister. Other visits as Prime Minister included travel to Niue for the 2008 Pacific Islands Forum and to Papua New Guinea for a special leaders’ meeting on Fiji in January 2009.

Pacific Island governments could hardly fail to notice the conspicuous absence of the Australian Foreign Minister from their shores while he pursues new friends further afield. They may conclude that courting new friends should be their priority too.

Photo by Flickr user adrian.

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