Washington should rely in Australia to lead in the South Pacific

The Australian government has led the charge in calling out Beijing’s attempts to undermine the rules-based, post-Second World War liberal international order.

To address the Chinese presence in the South Pacific Australia had looked to “integrate Pacific countries into the Australian and New Zealand economies and our [Australia’s] security institutions.” The Morrison government had also stepped upits engagement through a A$2 billion Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific which looks to assist the islanders with essential infrastructure projects in telecommunications, energy, transport, and water. Such actions, coupled with Scott Morrison referring to the Pacific Islands as vuvale a Fijian term for family, suggested that Canberra had recognised that it cannot take its neighbours for granted.

Australia has enormous capacity to help influence and shape the South Pacific through its membership in many forums such as the South Pacific Regional Environment Program, the South Pacific Defence Ministers Meeting, the Pacific Islands Chiefs of Police, the Forum Fisheries Agency, the Pacific Transnational Crime Network, the Pacific Immigration Development Community, and most notably the Pacific Island Forum, gives it enormous opportunity to help shape multilateral engagement.

Biden, Blinken, Sullivan, and senior Pentagon officials have sought to make it clear that the norm-committed United States is back and that the relationship with China “will be competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be, and adversarial when it must,”. Within that mindset, President Biden must recognise that many in the South Pacific feel ignored, taken for granted by U.S. policymakers. This feeling is the product of decades of benign neglect by successive administrations. Over the last few years, there has been growing awareness of the region in Washington leading to visits by Secretary of Defence Esper to Palau, Secretary of State Pompeo visiting the Federated States of Micronesia.

Strong rhetoric and an ambitious agenda must come with actions and the prospect of Sung Kim, a career U.S. State Department officer who organised the 2018 Singapore meeting between President Trump and Kim Jon-um, as the next Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs raises some questions about the Biden Administration ability to put the South Pacific high on its priority list. Put differently, under Sung Kim the Bureau is likely to focus on China, Hong Kong, Japan, and security and prosperity across the Indo-Pacific. Moreover, Sung Kim’s appointment suggests that Washington wants an expert on the Korean Peninsula, should President Biden look to exploit North Korea’s current vulnerabilities particularly if Pyongyang is to continue with its weapon proliferation campaign.

Working with New Zealand and the United States, Canberra could lead the way in having the three hegemons in developing a more productive re-engagement with the South Pacific countries, one tailored to their specific needs.

Firstly, Australia and its western allies must address the internal tensions that exist within the Forum. The colonial impact on the region has facilitated many grievances stemming from the way Jules Dumont d’Urville, a French naval officer divided the islands and people of Oceania into three categories: Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia. Australia, New Zealand, the United States have supported such distinctions, helping to fermented mistrust and divisions across the islands, as each region is affiliated with a specific region.

Secondly, the elevation of Mathias Corman as head of the OECD gives the Morrison government a unique opportunity to abandon its reductionist and antiquated position on climate change. The Australian government could use the Boa Declaration to promote its new climate position vis-à-vis the islands without fearing a big domestic discussion as to its position on fossil fuel because the declaration reaffirms members’ rights to address their address security issues independently and collectively.

Thirdly, Australia, Britain and France, Germany, the European Union and the United States must acknowledge that many of the actions that they had taken are tailored to counter China’s growing influence in the region and are not about the security needs of the region and its people, raising the prospects of the Pacific Islands states looking to exploit the geostrategic competition. Such moves, which were common during the Cold War when non-aligned countries sought to exploit great power rivalries, could create a major gap in President Biden’s commitment to resist China’s revisionist foreign policy and ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific.

To continue it to engage with leaders and people requires Australia to emphasis shared interests, histories and commonalities. Many of the region’s governments are weak with a tendency towards authoritarianism, which is where Australia and the EU can work to develop and strengthen governance institutions. Working with the EU which is in the final stages of completing a new treaty with the African, Caribbean and Pacific (APC) countries, Australia could support better institutional building.

Australia has spent the last few years actively challenging Beijing’s revisionist agenda. The campaign has been hard on Australia, as Beijing had retaliated by limiting Australian business access to China. And yet, despite China’s punitive actions, Australia has persisted, winning over many allies in Europe and North America who should now look to Canberra to help shape the engagement with the Pacific Islands who would prefer to work with the West, but will work with China to bring in much needed investment and aid. As the Biden administration looks to reengage with the world through multilateralism, one would expect Washington to turn to Canberra for guidance and support. The Morrison government should use this time to reset its policies towards the region and with it, bring forward many of the islanders’ concerns.

Isaac Kfir
Isaac Kfir
Isaac Kfir, Independent consultant, Advisory Board, International Institute for Justice and the Rule of Law and Adjunct Professor, Charles Sturt University