Shortcuts / 07 July 2022

Australia and our Pacific family

Australia and the Pacific Islands used to go together like cossies and sunscreen, but things have become more complicated in recent times. So before PM Anthony Albanese and other Pacific Islands Forum leaders gather in Fiji to talk next week, we go through our connection to the region, our role in supporting Pacific Island nations, and the future challenges and opportunities for the region.

Let’s get our bearings – where are the Pacific Islands?
It’s the region in the Pacific Ocean that lies north and east of Australia. The 3 major groups of islands in that region are Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia.

And the nations there are?
There are too many to list here, but the Melanesia region includes 4 independent countries: Fiji, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, and Papua New Guinea. Micronesia takes in the Marshall Islands, Kiribati, and the Federated States of Micronesia. And Polynesia is a big one – it takes in more than 1,000 islands including Hawaii, Tonga, Samoa, Tuvalu and the Cook Islands.

How does Oz fit in?
There’s a long history of engagement between Australia and the Pacific Islands, but our connection to the region was cemented during WWII.

You’ll need to jog my memory…
In December 1941, Japan launched a war against the western Allies and in the following years, Australia and other Allied forces fought them for control of Asia and the Pacific. There were some big and costly battles that we fought alongside the US. 

What other countries are involved?
France is another nation with a long history in the Pacific, and the European Union and Japan also like to keep a close eye on things. New Zealand is also heavily involved in the region – we often work together on engagement with Pacific nations.

Right. So what’s our job in the Pacific?
Australia has long been recognised as being a leader when it comes to advancing the prospects and priorities of our Pacific Island neighbours. And due to our geography, size, and position as a developed nation, we have a keen interest in supporting their sovereignty, stability, security and prosperity.

How does Oz go about that?
Australia has long been the Pacific’s largest development partner, security partner and friend in times of need.

Start at the beginning – how do we help Pacific nations with development?
It essentially means providing aid to nations in the region so they can build infrastructure, strengthen their economies, stabilise their national institutions and help their people through education, employment and health programs.

How much aid are we talking about?
Australia’s annual aid budget in recent times has been at about $4 billion in total – and in the 2020-21 financial year, about $1.4 billion of that was earmarked for Papua New Guinea and the Pacific.

That’s quite a lot…
Sure, but in recent times the discussion has been about how Australia can do more. At the last election, Labor promised to boost aid to the Pacific – they said that there wasn’t enough under the last Coalition Government, and that left the door open for Pacific nations to look to other powers for help.

Like China?
Exactly, and that’s where Australia’s role as a security partner to the Pacific comes in. Things came to a head earlier in the year when the Solomon Islands decided to sign a security pact with China.

Take me through it…
So long story short, PM Manasseh Sogavare has had a longstanding love-hate relationship with Australia. That’s been something we could manage – and we’ve always been there to help them with policing when there’s been unrest, along with funding for development. So we’ve been #1 to them for ages. 

Until China came into the picture?
Yep. Experts say China has outdone us under President Xi Jinping. It’s had a lot of cash to splash around as part of its Belt and Road initiative, and China has identified some strategic benefits to schmoozing with Pacific nations.

What kind of strategic benefits?
Well, one thing that has shaken up Australia and our allies is the suggestion China will build a military base on the Solomon Islands. Beijing has denied that’s the case, but Aussie officials say just having China’s big naval warships in our neck of the woods is a cause for concern.

What’s the big deal?
The Solomon Islands sits smack bang in the middle of a key shipping route, so there are concerns about keeping those trade routes open. And there are issues of espionage and interference – the Solomons are a lot closer to Oz than China is, and that makes it easier for Beijing to keep tabs on us.

Has China been buttering up any other Pacific nations?
It sure has. During the election campaign, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi embarked on a marathon tour of the region, visiting 8 countries in 10 days. He proposed a sweeping economic and security deal that didn’t end up going ahead, but it gives you an idea of China’s approach.

So Oz has been urged to step up?
Yep, and in recent times there’s been talk about doing more to help the Pacific deal with their challenges and make more of their opportunities. The main way those are determined is through the Pacific Islands Forum. Foreign Affairs types call it the PIF.

What’s that?
It’s the region’s premier political and economic policy organisation. It was founded in 1971 and comprises 18 members, including Oz. We contribute about a 3rd of its budget.

What’s the PIF’s aim?
To support a region of peace, harmony, security, social inclusion and prosperity. And when leaders gather annually, they discuss a big agenda covering economic, security, environmental, social and governance matters.

When is the next PIF meeting?
That’s in Fiji between 11-14 July – so next week. PM Anthony Albanese will be attending, and it’s the first face-to-face gathering since the 2019 PIF meeting in Tuvalu.

Why would I remember that meeting?
It’s where our then PM Scott Morrison clashed with his Pacific counterparts over climate change.

Got you. So climate change is a big issue in the Pacific?
It sure is, and it’s not just an environmental thing – they consider it to be their top security issue. The Albanese Government is a step ahead of its predecessors on that score because they have a bigger short-term emissions reduction target which has been welcomed by PIF members.

Anything else to note about next week’s summit?
Yes – this time around, there will be no meetings with partners of the Forum, including the US, China, the European Union, Japan, South Korea, Canada, India, Singapore and the UK.

Why is that?
Reports say that Fiji’s PM Frank Bainimarama wanted to ensure that Pacific leaders had “space” to resolve their issues (ahem China…) and decide on their key priorities without having to wrangle powerful outsiders.

That puts Australia in a pretty good position…
It certainly does because we’re in the room as a member. 

Let’s pick it up next week?
You know it. 

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