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Australia’s Confused Approach to Engagement With the Pacific

28 Jul 2021
By Oscar McLoughlin
The Boe Declaration monument. Source: Office of the President of Taiwan

Australia’s level of influence in the Pacific has declined as the result of a misguided and confused foreign policy. With Sino-Australian relations worsening day-by-day, Australia needs its Pacific mates more than ever.

In 2018, Australia, along with all other Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) members, signed the Boe Declaration, which articulated that “climate change remains the single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and wellbeing of the peoples of the Pacific.” With China now strategically encroaching upon the region, Australia should be upholding the spirit of the Boe Declaration by making stronger commitments on climate change so it can be a genuine partner for the Pacific Island Countries . Doing so will allow Australia to strengthen its influence in its periphery and prevent security threats it faces from the north.

In 2016, then-Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull announced a “step-change” in Australia’s Pacific engagement, which changed to the “Pacific Step-up” by 2018. The initiative was lauded as an enhancement of Australia’s commitment to development, as well as regional “sovereignty, stability, security and prosperity.” Billions of dollars in infrastructure and aid were pledged. Since then, even more has been pledged, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic with Australia promising “full immunisation coverage.” Fiji, for example, has now received more than 200,000 out of the total 1,000,000 vaccines pledged. Overall, for the 2020-21 period, an extra $305 million in aid was delivered to the Pacific and Timor-Leste.

While these steps have been beneficial to Australia’s relations with Pacific Island Countries, as a whole the initiatives neglect the core issue faced by these countries, plainly stated in the Boe Declaration. The Morrison government’s weak approach to climate change policy is antagonising a region which considers climate change to be an existential threat. The low-lying Marshall Islands, Tuvalu, and Kiribati are most at risk of inundation as a result of rising sea levels from climate change. Those countries are predicted to be completely submerged by 2100. Other countries in the Pacific, like the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, are at risk of state failure due to their dependence on agriculture, forestry, and fisheries, all of which are under threat from a changing climate.

Since the Boe Declaration, Australia ought to have met the spirit of this pronouncement. Instead, it has failed to uphold it, taking a “passive” stance on climate change. Australia nearly caused the collapse of the 2019 Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) meeting over “fierce” disagreement on coal, global warming limits, and greenhouse gas emissions. Australia has exhibited this complacence on climate change on the international stage, recently being ranked last for climate action out of 193 other UN member states. The Australian government has not fully committed to net-zero emissions by 2050, instead opting for the language of “preferably by 2050.” Australia has also refused to totally disavow its reliance on fossil fuels.  In 2017, Scott Morrison infamously held up a lump of coal in Parliament and said, “Don’t be scared. It won’t hurt you.”

Notwithstanding the human security challenges associated with climate change, including resource conflict and refugee crises, Australia needs to start making strong and tangible commitments to tackling climate change if it is going to be seen as a genuine partner with Pacific Islander Countries. This is necessary because an ever-present and germane issue for Australia has been the impact of a potential Chinese military base in the Pacific. Since the late 2010’s, there have been a flurry reports, sometimes based on rumour and speculation, of the PRC seeking to erect military bases in the Pacific – including in Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, and Samoa. The origin of such reporting coincided with the emergence of idea of debt-trap diplomacy – the idea that China engages in predatory lending and other grey-zone methods to establish geo-strategic influence and control over other countries. Grey-zone activities are those “designed to coerce countries in ways that seek to avoid military conflict.” A PLA base in the Pacific Islands would pose a significant security threat to Australia because Australia would lose its strategic advantage of remoteness. Preventing such a threat will require smart and co-ordinated diplomacy, especially with Pacific Island Countries currently subject to Chinese grey-zone methods aimed at establishing a base.

Past failures to have a more active stance on climate change can be seen to be missed opportunities to make a real Pacific step-up. Australian policymakers should be acting on what we already know about the Pacific from the Boe Declaration, rather than waiting for a great foreign power to expand its Pacific reach and establish a permanent military presence.  Australian policymakers should support efforts to reconvene the PIF after its February split over leadership succession so Australia can work multilaterally to ensure its climate policy can align with the security interests of Pacific. Otherwise, Australian policymakers should not be surprised if Australia’s influence continues to decline in the immediate region, and if Australia’s security indeed comes under threat in the future.

Oscar McLoughlin is a fourth-year student at the Australian National University studying a double degree of International Security Studies and Law. He is currently undertaking the Australian National Internships Program as a policy intern at the Sea Power Centre. Oscar has a strong interest in Australian foreign and strategic policy in the Asia-Pacific. Oscar is currently an intern at the AIIA National Office in Canberra.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.