Re-vamping the Pacific: will Australia ‘step up’ or ‘step out’?

In 2014, I wrote a short piece on the Pacific Islands that found its way, surprisingly, across the globe and into the Bangladeshi Independent newspaper.

It was provocatively titled, Should sinking islands in the South Pacific worry us?

My argument wasn’t that sinking islands shouldn’t worry us – but rather, that they should. My thesis at the time posited that Climate Change – specifically the search for a grand international emissions agreement – was becoming a mechanism to eclipse or ‘cover over’ the multitude of domestic sustainability issues at the feet of Pacific Island leaders.

As we know, sanitation and waste collection, clean air, deforestation and illegal logging, grid connectivity and blackouts, drainage and local disaster response, all have little to do with an atmospheric increase in carbon or what happens in the halls of Geneva or New York. These issues are intensely important when it comes to looking after local environments, especially when scaled-up to include collective efforts such as the Blue Pacific – a collaborative strategy that sets priorities for Pacific nations to 2050.

Indeed, the Blue Pacific is commendable for its effort to help secure ocean beds, economic zones, fishing license revenues, while also looking at principles such as partnership, shared priorities, collective impact, and stewardship. Its concepts have been spiritually understood for some time and continue to build on the historical legacy of Pacific Islanders like poet Albert Wendt and the late writer Epeli Hau’ofa.

Yet the short-term picture for the Pacific is one where the Environmental Performance Index or ‘EPI’ ranks Pacific Island states routinely near the bottom.

I don’t say this to stymie aspiration or to dull our shared dreams down.

Indeed, many of us here and across the Pacific region know these close-to-home issues are the ones that need to be properly triaged. Thankfully, it is encouraging that the desire to deal with these core ‘at home’ challenges is not being deflected by those in power.

For example, if you carefully read the Civil Society Dialogue summary from the 2019 Pacific Island Forum (PIF) Leaders’ Summit, you will see a short sentence that perfectly summarises the cleavage between international and local responsibilities:

Larger, developed countries may be responsible for the accelerated rates of Climate Change impacts affecting our islands but we, the people of the Pacific, are responsible for the manner in which we continue to engage – let us uphold our cultural values of truly nurturing our lands, seas and each other.

I want to encourage this sort of thinking to be at the front of our minds. It shouldn’t come at the expense of international agreements, or declarations made a world away. Indeed, ‘nurturing’ in the Pacific requires responsibility, agency, human capital, limiting political clientelism, and greater sovereignty – a desire to solve one’s own challenges with one’s own solutions.

Therefore, if we are thinking about ‘critical conversations’ – which is a theme for the modern era – then ‘critical conversations’ need to include ‘critical capabilities’. This doesn’t stop with capability gaps in the South Pacific. We have to think about capabilities here at home and especially in the way that we retool Australian statecraft in the region.

A few months, I wrote a paper for the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS), where I explored Beijing’s attempts at influence in Papua New Guinea (PNG), and where Australia needs to reinvigorate the Pacific ‘step-up’. Australia enjoys a deep relationship with PNG, which goes back over a century. If you carefully examine the origins of the step-up – stencilling the proposal together with its foundation – it has been built upon renewed values. As Malcolm Turnbull noted in 2017, these are critical values such ‘freedom, democracy, the rule of law, mutual respect’. These are as important as ever, especially in the situation we find ourselves in with China.

When we talk about a Pacific Family, there’s actually something relevant there – or at least we can talk with greater fluency than Beijing or, dare I say, even France and the slight friction points emerging from its recent Pacific Islands Forum insertion.

But we can improve.

In the CIS piece, I touched on a few areas where we need to be more creative in the way that we use our arms of influence to help drive genuine but shared outcomes in PNG:

  • Increasing our diplomatic presence and giving our diplomats much more discretion.
  • Focusing on expedited delivery (eg. the lagging 2018 trilateral Lombrum naval facility commitment).
  • Giving more space to sport diplomacy (the language and actions of values).
  • Thinking about hard and soft infrastructure solutions.
  • Looking at ways we can get more Australian companies involved in PNG (e.g. Telstra and its government-backed Digicel takeover).

While Beijing’s attempts for influence can be a catalyst for this kind of thinking, Beijing’s emergence can help us to service those local Blue Pacific issues that I touched on before – nurturing the lands and seas, building agency, human capital, solving problems, and building sovereignty.

It is important that we use our relationship for the Pacific’s advantage – not in a way to extract utility but to be more creative about how we engage, the way we listen, and the ways to ultimately assist Pacific Islanders build their capabilities.

If we look to the past, we will see that this isn’t so much about manufacturing something new but, importantly, reconnecting with good statecraft.

Robert Menzies, I think, said it best. Although these words were delivered in 1963 to a pre-independence Port Moresby audience, they apply to our region and remain especially important in our era of great power competition:

We are not oppressors. On the contrary, our dominant aim is to raise the material, intellectual, social and political standards and self-reliance of the indigenous peoples to a point at which they may freely and competently choose their own future.

This piece was adapted from a speech delivered to April 26, 2022 Australian Institute of International Affairs (AIIA) event on the Pacific Islands. You can find Sean at his website or pick up a copy of his book We Don’t Cheat.