Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Australia should not overestimate China’s ‘threat’ in the Pacific and restore relations in the region

The signing of a security agreement between the Solomon Islands and China in April 2022 brought geopolitical competition and militarization in the Pacific to the forefront of public discussion.

Australian policymakers and the public are concerned about the potential for a Chinese military base in the Pacific region. They have wider concerns that China’s influence will become sharper and more destructive.

In a time of increasing geostrategic competition, Australia may feel pressured to pursue a short-term and transactional approach to the Pacific. Such crisis thinking would be unnecessary and counterproductive.

Australia needs to frame its relationship with the Pacific in terms of long-term, generational partnership. It must respond to the Pacific’s priorities for development with a clear vision for a shared, long-term future.

The Pacific will always be of great strategic importance to Australia. Peace and stability in the Pacific Islands go to the heart of Australia’s security, prosperity and national interest.

This means Australia’s interest in the region, and the attention it pays to it, must remain clear, consistent and coherent, whether there are crises or not. Sincere, consistent Australian involvement should address the unique needs of each Pacific Islander through both bilateral and local Pacific-led initiatives.

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There is a danger that a focus on China could overtake other priorities. This will undermine confidence and lead to Australia’s diplomatic intentions not always being well received. If Australia prioritises its own institutional requirements and solutions over local agency and solutions, it could feed negative perceptions about Australia’s intent.

Foreign Minister Penny Wong has spent a lot of time in the Pacific since Labor won office.
AAP / Associated Press / Department of Foreign Affairs

When Pacific leaders look at regional security, they have a broad view, which includes climate change, human security, gender equality, environmental and resource security, transnational crime and cyber security. This reflects insecurity in the Pacific at several levels:

  • worldwide, as a warming planet poses ecological and civilization threats
  • regionally, as players and relationships change
  • nationally, as countries respond to the effects of COVID-19, natural disasters, illegal fishing, transnational crime and other threats, exacerbated by gender inequality
  • locally, where community leaders and security agencies struggle to control violence and conflict in multiple countries. In some areas, law and order challenges and the proliferation of firearms mean the risks to individual security and tribal and political violence are extremely real.

These shared challenges and mutual threats require the long-term attention of Australia and the Pacific Islands. We need to move beyond paying lip service to each other’s security issues and developing a common security framework that responds to the full set of peace and security challenges in the Pacific. It requires deepening relationships and making sure shared concerns are not lost along the way.

The good news is that there are strong foundations to work on in cooperation between Australia and the Pacific. Australia has security cooperation arrangements with most Pacific island states. These include police-to-police cooperation, defense capability building and joint military exercises.

Read more: Reinforcing ‘China threat’ stories in the Pacific could help China achieve its broader goals

There are development programs designed to address drivers of fragility such as inequality and inclusive economic growth. There is collaboration on climate science, sustainable fisheries and the conservation of maritime borders in the face of rising sea levels. Australia has goodwill in the region to pick up.

There is a risk that Australia’s concerns about geopolitical change will lead to it exaggerating the differences with the islands in the Pacific. There will always be areas where views and interests match, and others where they do not.

Australia needs to envisage Pacific Islands as a network of interaction, trade, exchange, communication and influence that spans much of the Pacific. Strong relationships do not only consist of defense and security ties, and do not only come into play in situations of threat. They are the product of long-term, consistent and multifaceted engagement, sincere partnership with and respect for countries that are equally sovereign, and exchanges that take seriously all parties’ priorities, concerns and values.

The opportunity exists for a rhetorical recovery that embraces Australia as a generational partner for Pacific societies. Faced with a challenge to its profile and influence, Australia must take a long-term approach. The focus should be on economic integration, reciprocity and a sustained commitment to generational progress.

Australians must accept that Pacific Islands will link up with other countries, and will work to bridge the gaps in our defense, development and diplomatic relations with the region.

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Nation World News Desk
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