(Analysis) Australia in the Pacific: How can Canberra Regain Influence?

(Analysis) Australia in the Pacific: How can Canberra Regain Influence?

Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong listens to a panel discussion during the Pacific Islands Forum in Suva, Fiji, on July 12, 2022. Source: William West/AFP Via Getty Images

The Pacific Islands region, located northeast of Australia’s east coast, is a vast expanse covering approximately 40 million square kilometers of ocean. Despite its remoteness, small population, and limited economic resources, the region has historically been the site of great power competition during World War II, this long stretch of ocean was the site of some of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific.

The post-war period, however, has seen Western powers, the United States, France, Australia and New Zealand, play the largest roles in the region. In Melanesia, notably, Australia has historically been the dominant power with Canberra’s policymakers have long regarded the region as a key aspect of its national security policy. In its quest for a prosperous and stable region, Australia has stood ready, when deemed necessary, to intervene unilaterally. In recent decades, Australian security forces have intervened in the Bougainville province of Papua New Guinea (PNG) and, more recently, in the Solomon Islands, one of the poorest countries in Oceania. Honiara, which is about 1609 km northeast of Australia, saw a contingent of Australian Federal Police and Australian Defense Force personnel dispatched in November 2021 at the height of the Solomon Islands’ political crisis. Beyond the realm of hard power force projection, Canberra has been an important economic security partner for Honiara: in 2019-2020, Australia provided over $174 million in official development assistance.      

Yet Australia’s engagement with the South Pacific has been increasingly challenged by the growing influence of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In recent years, the PRC has scored several diplomatic victories across Melanesia and Polynesia: notably convincing Honiara and Tarawa to switch ties from Taipei to Beijing. With the Pacific islands region holding about 7 percent of UN votes, the PRC has sought to deepen its aid and economic engagement to garner support at international fora – when Beijing was targeted at the UN Human Rights Council for the human rights situation in Xinjiang in 2021: Kiribati, PNG and the Solomon Islands responded in support for the PRC. This dynamic has brought considerable concern across Australian foreign policy circles.

But Australia’s rising anxiety over the PRC’s growing footprint has not led to restraint from Beijing. Behind the scenes, Xi Jinping’s government signed last April a landmarked security deal with Honiara that might one day see a Chinese military outpost on Australia’s northern doorstep. In late May, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Foreign Minister Wang Yi scored 52 bilateral agreements, advancing the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the PRC’s standing as a reliable partner and viable alternative to other major powers in the region.

Chinese President Xi Jinping meeting with Solomon Islands’ Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare in Beijing in 2019. Source: AFP: Xinhua/Yao Dawei.

Boost Australia’s Security Engagement

A PRC military outpost in the heart of Melanesia would allow Chinese warships to be based in the heart of Oceania and mark a major shift in the balance of power, if left unchecked. Although trade relations between Beijing and Canberra have tripled over the past decade to AU$110 billion per year, Chinese interference in Australian federal politics, combined with the PRC’s assertive military build-up in the South China Sea, has led to a downward spiral in bilateral ties, symbolized by the imposition of unprecedented trade sanctions by the PRC on Australian export industries.

As the alliance with the United States remains a central element of Australian foreign policy, a Chinese military base would allow Beijing to maintain a permanent surveillance cap over Australia’s East Coast. With Australia seeking to establish its future nuclear submarine base on its Eastern Seaboard, a PRC base in the Solomon Islands could complicate transit between Australia and the United States, but more critically, allow Beijing to increase its power projection in the second and third island chains, bringing Chinese military firepower closer than ever to Australia.

Canberra still has policy options to limit the strategic gain of the PRC’s military ambition. A little north and west of the Solomon’s is PNG’s Manus Island, where an established Australian military outpost would be able to cut off the supply lines to a Chinese military base in the event of a conflict. This has happened before when the American, Australian, and Allied navies ran a large fleet from Manus Island during World War II, which effectively isolated the Japanese Rabaul military base from vital sea lines of communication.

In November 2018, Canberra and Port Moresby reached an agreement for Australia to upgrade PNG’s main naval base on Manus Island, the Lombrum Naval Base. The rebuilding and refurbishment of the military base would effectively pave the way for enhanced Australian maritime surveillance. Nonetheless it has taken nearly two years to begin the main work: construction of facilities for training, accommodation, patrol boats and small boat operations.  

This is scarcely the most decisive response. Most notably apparent when one considers that the PRC has the world’s largest navy that possesses destroyer-type vessels that can easily upend the deterrence of these small-scale naval ships, which are best suited to enforce border controls, conduct search and rescue operations and chase illegal fishermen.

Discussions with PNG should be initiated for a more substantial redevelopment that would allow for the berthing of larger vessels. The momentum is there for this level of bilateral cooperation. The PRC’s heavy-handed approach to regional relations has caused considerable trepidation in the James Marape’s government over recent months.

In May, PNG was among the members of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) that strongly rejected the Xi government’s push to sign a security deal. The Solomon Islands-China security agreement has particularly spurred Prime Minister James Marape to begin talks with the current Anthony Albanese government on a historic bilateral security agreement – the first since PNG gained independence from Australia in 1975.     

Defense Minister Richard Marles with PNG Prime Minister James Marape during a bilateral security meeting, October 13, 2022. Source: Australian Government Defence

As Canberra and Port Moresby seek to finalize a new bilateral security deal over the coming months, a treaty-level agreement would help formalize and elevate the existing relationship, as well as open up the avenue to advance new opportunities for intensified engagement. This is an important development, one that would greatly facilitate the Albanese government’s efforts to thwart the PRC’s attempts to extend its hard power ambitions in Oceania.

Stepping Up Climate Security Engagements

The island nations, stretching from PNG and the Solomon Islands to Vanuatu, Fiji and beyond, are in urgent need of adequate sustainable investment projects that address their economic and climate security concerns. Over the past decade, the world’s second largest economy has made dramatic progress in extending its economic reach. Excluding PNG, two-way trade between Pacific island countries and the PRC has overtaken that of Australia since 2013.

The PRC has been particularly responsive to the urgent economic infrastructure needs and high-level trade of the region’s small island states over the past decade, primarily through its economic statecraft: the BRI. The Cook Islands, Fiji, PNG, Samoa, Tonga, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands have all signed up to Beijing’s flagship economic project. Most commercial investments by PRC state-owned enterprises are made in the form of concessional loans, with considerably shorter repayment periods: 20 years for the Export-Import Bank of China (Eximbank) compared to 36 years for multilateral development banks (MDBs).

Over recent years, Australia has sought to counter the PRC’s growing economic reach through its Pacific Step-up Initiative. However, the previous Liberal/Coalition government’s refusal to take concrete action to limit emissions, combined with its attempts to resist international calls to strengthen fossil fuel reduction targets, has diminished Canberra’s reach in the region and made it more difficult to safeguard its enduring and critically important economic and geostrategic interests. In 2019, Scott Morrison, notably attempted to soften a Pacific regional climate declaration. In the immediate wake of that bruising summit, Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama told waiting media that partnering with the PRC was preferable to working with Australia. The PRC has capitalized on the frustration and disappointment of Scott Morrison’s failure to address these concerns by helping its state-owned enterprises secure renewable energy projects with the Pacific islands, such as the signing of a $1.1 million Lake Hargy hydropower plant in PNG’s New Britain province.

Amidst strategic shake-up in the Pacific: Canberra must clearly take the lead on climate action. In this respect, the Albanese government has taken a more proactive stance on this issue. Pacific leaders welcomed the current government’s new commitment to reduce emissions by 43% by 2030 and its interest in co-hosting a UN climate summit with Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) countries. The issue of climate change was notably at the heart of the PIF leaders’ summit communiqué of July 2022. This was then capped by Canberra’s commitment to increase development assistance to the region by $900 million over four years.

Ahead of the UN climate summit in Egypt, the Albanese government joined the global effort to reduce methane emissions by 30% by 2030, joining more than 100 other countries. Australia also showed climate leadership at the global event: Climate Change and Energy Minister Christopher Bowen co-chaired negotiations to establish a loss and damage fund to help developing countries adapt to climate change – lauded by Pacific leaders. This was the first time in years that Australia had been given the responsibility for leading negotiations and facilitating an outcome.

Christopher Bowen, Minister of Climate Change and Energy of Australia, speaks at the COP27 UN Climate Summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. Source: SMH

Irritants have also surfaced over recent months when Australian Prime Minister Albanese stated that Australia would continue to export fossil fuels to international markets. At the COP 27 climate talks, the Australian delegation backed away from signing the Glasgow Statement: an agreement urging countries to end public funding to the fossil fuel sector. Australia is now the largest OECD country not to sign the Glasgow Statement, aside from Japan and Korea.

This development has caused significant dismay among former Pacific leaders: Kiribati’s ex-president Anote Tong and Palau’s former president Tommy Remengesau Jr. have questioned Canberra’s engagement and earnestness in addressing this threat. Vanuatu’s President Nikenike Vurobaravu and Tuvalu’s Prime Minister Kausea Natano went even further, becoming the first international leaders to call for a fuel non-proliferation treaty to accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels.

We, (…) unite with a hundred Nobel peace prize laureates and thousands of scientists worldwide and urge world leaders to join the fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty to manage a just transition away from fossil fuels.

Kausea Natano pledged at COP 27.

The Labor government cannot risk abandoning the positive momentum achieved with Pacific leaders. In the South Pacific, the overarching effects of climate change are upending communities and affecting both human and traditional security calculations. Low-lying communities are facing the prospect of mass migration as islands become uninhabitable. There are impacts on employment, resource availability, food security, and emergency services throughout the region.

For fragile states, there is a risk of total state failure – the eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano in January notably destroyed decades of development on the island of Tonga.

As an integral member of PIF, Australia has the moral responsibility to use its international position to build greater climate action on the global stage. The Albanese government has an unprecedented opportunity to leverage Australia’s position in Oceania by driving a moratorium on new coal and gas projects. Returning to the Green Climate Fund and increasing renewable energy targets domestically and for export to international markets, including Oceania, now would send a clear signal that the Labor Party and Australia are committed to doing more to combat the negative impacts of climate change.


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