Dr Cameron Hill,
Foreign Affairs, Defence and Security
The international relations of the Pacific have become more complex as a wider array of external powers pursue diverse interests and increased influence.
For reasons of geography, size and history,
Australia has long been recognised as having a leadership role when it comes to
advancing the prospects and priorities of its Pacific Island neighbours. Whilst
Australia and New Zealand, alongside the US, France, the EU and Japan, remain
the most significant security, trade and aid partners for most Pacific
countries, a wider range of external powers are playing a bigger role in shaping
the region’s international relations.
Pacific Island countries are leveraging this
diversity to advance their own strategic, economic and development goals.
China has continued to increase its engagement in
the Pacific. According to one estimate, China’s bilateral aid in the Pacific
over the last decade totalled around US$1.4
billion, around one-fifth of that provided by Australia. In 2013, China offered
US$2 billion in concessional loans for regional infrastructure development. China’s
aid projects in the Pacific, such as the current renovation
of the prime minister’s office in Vanuatu, are often very high profile. Fiji,
estranged from Australia and New Zealand until recently, has been a prominent beneficiary
of China’s assistance.
China’s interests in the Pacific include port
resources and, more recently,
deep sea exploration. They also include garnering support for Beijing’s
position on core interests such as ‘one China’ and the South China Sea disputes
(see separate brief). Both PNG
have recently expressed positions on the latter that closely align with those
Russia’s contemporary interests in the South
Pacific stretch back to the Soviet era and the Cold War, during which Moscow’s
Pacific Fleet was deployed across the wider region. Although Russia’s current interests
and influence are more modest, it has stepped up its Pacific engagement in
recent years. Russia has increased its military presence in the region,
including through plans
to strengthen its Pacific Fleet and several recent high-profile deployments
of military assets. Some analysts have speculated
that over the longer term, Russia may be seeking naval basing rights in the region.
Russia also attracted attention in early 2016
of an arms supply deal with Fiji. This deal—which included ammunition, small
arms, spare parts and mechanical workshop trucks—has been described
as ‘the first shipment of lethal aid into the Pacific by a non-traditional
partner’ and attracted
some criticism within Fiji.
India is also becoming a more prominent player in
the Pacific. Given the country’s large Indian diaspora, Fiji has been a particular
focus. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 2014 visit
to Fiji included promises of increased bilateral aid and investment, as well as
commitments to enhance cooperation with Pacific Island countries on climate
change, trade, and space and satellite technologies.
While India’s links with the Pacific remain
relatively modest, New Delhi is actively pursuing enhanced engagement with the region as part of a wider
‘Indo-Pacific’ maritime outlook. From the
perspective of the Pacific Island countries, ‘India’s presence offers the
prospect of greater balance in the South Pacific’.
Indonesia’s recent engagement with the Pacific has
been dominated by its concerns over alleged
‘interference’ in the West Papuan issue by some members of the Melanesian
Spearhead Group (MSG). Jakarta has been particularly keen to ensure
that groups promoting independence for West Papua do not gain full membership
of the MSG. Indonesia continues to deploy extensive diplomatic resources in the
Pacific to avert this outcome.
As part of its wider development diplomacy, Indonesia
has also sought to pursue
greater ‘South-South’ cooperation through increased aid and people-to-people
links with Pacific Island countries. This included assistance
to Fiji in the wake of 2016 Tropical Cyclone Winston.
Implications for Australia
While not as contested as maritime East Asia, the international
relations of the South Pacific have become more complex as a wider array of
external powers pursue diverse interests and increased influence.
Australia’s traditional leadership role in the Pacific
is not being directly challenged. Indeed, increased international trade,
investment and aid are regional goals that Australia has long advocated and pursued.
But Australia will need to adapt to this new environment if it is to ensure it
remains a partner of choice for its Pacific neighbours. This may mean being
when it comes to the priorities of these countries in areas such as climate
change, labour mobility, and fisheries management.
It may also mean working harder to ensure that
greater engagement by external powers does not undermine gains in areas such as
governance, anti-corruption and inter-communal peace. Recent instability
in PNG shows the fragility of these gains. Some critics contend
that Australia’s emphasis on maintaining offshore detention and resettlement agreements
with PNG and Nauru has undermined its credentials and capacity in these areas.
It has also been argued
that Australia needs to be more flexible when it comes to the region’s multilateral
architecture. Groupings such as the MSG and the Pacific Islands Development
Forum, both of which exclude Australia and New Zealand, are seen by some of their
members as more responsive to regional priorities and more attuned to enduring local
sensitivities concerning sovereignty and ‘neo-colonialism’. Australia may need
to think more creatively about how to engage with these groupings.
W Bruere and C Hill, Changes to Australia’s overseas aid program under the Abbott and Turnbull governments 2013–2016, Research paper series, 2016–17, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 2016.
S Dorney, The embarrassed colonialist,
Lowy Institute for International Policy, 2015.
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