It’s no secret that the new government has made relations with the Pacific a priority. Its election commitment included a plan for a stronger Pacific family with new funding commitments. In her first four weeks after being sworn in, foreign affairs minister Penny Wong made three separate trips to the region to visit fiji, Samoa, Tongan and Solomon Islands.
But engaging with the Pacific is not just a job for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. A new report by the Asia-Pacific Development, Diplomacy & Defense Dialogue (AP4D) shows how Australia needs to use all the arms of statecraft to effectively engage across the region. Drawing on six months of consultations with more than 140 experts across Australia and the region, it sets out a vision for a shared future for Australia and the Pacific. It shows that it is an all-of-government – and even whole-of-nation – task.
So what does an ideal relationship with the Pacific look like? The overall vision should be of an Australia-Pacific partnership of mutuality, respect and shared leadership. This is one where Australia frames its engagement with the Pacific as valuable in its own right, not through the lens of geostrategic competition. Expectations are reset to accept that Pacific island countries will also engage with other countries and use the opportunity to recognize the gaps in Australia’s defence, development and diplomatic relationships.
Above all, a short-term and transactional approach would be counterproductive. Instead, Australia needs to see itself as a generational partner for Pacific societies and pursue a long-term approach that will reap dividends far beyond transactionalism.
Using this idea of being a generational partner gives a sense of just how many areas there are where Australia can and should be working with the Pacific.
On climate, Pacific island countries are dealing with the impact of climate change right now, including more regular severe cyclones, changing rainfall patterns, flooding, marine heatwaves, coastal erosion and coral bleaching. There is an important role for scientific cooperation and in helping to build local disaster response capacity. Climate finance is crucial to fund climate adaptation, including infrastructure.
Health and education are both key areas for international engagement, with Pacific island countries remaining extremely vulnerable to the health and economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Australian bilateral and collaborative investments with partner donors should build the health, education and social protection systems that Pacific island countries need for coming generations.
This includes improved basic education, vocational training and employment pathways, such as through labor mobility. Australia is in the process of implementing further pathways for permanent migration.
Partnerships with Australia can enable small-scale enterprises in the Pacific to become profitable and sustainable through trade. As well as markets for Pacific goods, Australia can build markets for digital content and digital products. Digital technology provides an immense opportunity for the Pacific – a region that has struggled with global connectivity.
With so many critical functions of governments and societies dependent on technology, identifying and protecting critical assets is a core security issue. Australia needs to partner with the Pacific on digital resilience to withstand attacks and misinformation.
Given governance challenges, Australia can also invest in civil society, media and other socio-political institutions critical to good governance, democratic norms and countering external influence, as well as drawing on its peacebuilding and conflict mediation experience. Australia needs to work with the Pacific to respond to the full set of peace and security challenges, including illegal fishing, transnational crime, gendered drivers of insecurity and law-and-order challenges.
Strong civil society partnerships bring significant benefits to both Australia and the Pacific. Strong diasporas support the partnership relationship. There are opportunities to increase people-to-people engagement if Australia increases its Pacific literacy through sustained investment.
So there is no lack of areas for cooperation. For any department that has international engagement links with Pacific island countries, there are some important points to keep in mind.
The common vision for Australia’s many actors – government and non-government – should be one where Australia leverages its expertise and experience to support local and regional priorities. This means aligning with Pacific priorities. It is in Australia’s interest to care about what Pacific island countries care about. This also means not just listening but also acting – and ensuring that the Pacific agenda is a priority in Australia’s broader global agenda and Pacific preferences are not overridden.
Key Australian actors – both across government and across society – should frame and talk about the Pacific using rhetoric that emphasizes partnership and positive relationships rather than problems and needs. This reframes the relationship as a partnership of neighbours, not as Australia as the ‘fixer’ of Pacific problems. It focuses on Pacific capacity strength rather than capacity deficit.
Australia’s scale in the region means its actions are consequential and it can have a positive impact on the trajectory of Pacific economies and societies. That’s why it’s so important that all the arms of international engagement have a common vision and align their efforts for the greatest impact.
* Melissa Conley Tyler FAIIA is program lead at the Asia-Pacific Development, Diplomacy & Defense Dialogue (AP4D). This piece draws on a report recently published by AP4D “Australia and the Pacific: Shaping a Shared Future”.
The report will be launched today by Pat Conroy, minister for international development and the Pacific and minister for defense industry. You can register for the online launch at https://us06web.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_V1SFpFBOTwOFkl4QhVyMFA