The ALP government has hit the ground running in the Pacific. But is it on the right track?
Foreign Minister Penny Wong’s efforts to conduct face-to-face diplomacy, and her emphasis on listening to the region, are welcome. Within a week of taking office, Wong was in Fiji. She has followed-up with visits to Samoa, Tonga, and Solomon Islands. Relationships are vital in the Pacific, so Wong’s efforts to meet some of her Pacific counterparts are a positive start.
But more important will be the ALP government’s response to what Wong heard from her Pacific counterparts. Too often over the years Australian governments have announced policy changes that have not come to fruition, or disappointed when they did.
The Pacific policy that the ALP took to the election contains some good ideas. However, it is unclear whether Pacific governments were consulted in the drafting process. This is crucial, as too often the protocols that help build meaningful and trustful relationships in the region are overlooked. Goodwill often comes as much from how policies are formulated as what they actually implement.
We have identified four additional issues that the government should seek feedback on from their Pacific counterparts.
The first is improving access for Pacific nationals to Australian visitor visas.
Australia requires all visitors to hold a visa, and only New Zealand citizens can apply for one on arrival. However, citizens from specified states (all advanced economies and most European) can apply for either an Electronic Travel Authority before they travel at no cost (although there may be a $20 service charge) and with immediate acceptance, or an eVisitor visa, which is free and is processed within 30 days.
Citizens from Pacific states are only eligible to apply for a Visitor Visa, which costs $150 and has the slowest approval rate – only 75 percent of applications are accepted within 26 days. This has led to frustration in the Pacific, where Australian citizens can generally obtain visitor/tourist visas on arrival.
The Solomon Islands government has just repeated its call for its citizens to be included in a reciprocal visa waiver program. As Solomon Islands’ Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Jeremiah Manele observed, as a “Pacific family” Australia and Solomon Islands should “care for each other” and “look after each other in times of need.” With anxiety about the implications of the China-Solomon Islands security agreement and China’s attempts to secure a region-wide security and economic pact still high, this is an opportune moment for Australia to consider a policy change that would have considerable practical and soft power benefits.
The second is offering more opportunities for Pacific students to access tertiary and vocational education in Australia.
Scholarships are the main mechanism whereby Pacific Islanders access tertiary education in Australia, mainly through Australia Awards. But the perception that Pacific always seeks a handout in the form of scholarships is false. In addition to the Australia Awards, giving Pacific students access to Australian higher education at domestic fee rates – as opposed to the much higher international student rates – would increase the number of Pacific students studying in Australia. Education is one of the key contributors to quality sustainable livelihoods in the Pacific.
There is also the significant value in education as a public diplomacy mechanism, by which Australia’s people-to-people connections can be enhanced.
The third is creating a national security strategy in accordance with Australia’s commitments under the Pacific Islands Forum’s 2018 Boe Declaration on Regional Security.
Australia has been assisting Pacific states to create their national security strategies. So far, Samoa, Vanuatu, and Solomon Islands have adopted them (Papua New Guinea adopted a National Security Policy in 2013). Fiji’s is in draft form.
Adopting a national security strategy would demonstrate that Australia supports the Boe Declaration and the Action Plan that guides its implementation. In combination with the forthcoming 2050 Strategy on the Blue Pacific, these documents provide the basis for the enhanced security architecture emerging in the region.
The process of consulting on its national security strategy would also give Australia an opportunity to analyse how its security interests relate to, and intersect with, those of the Pacific, and hopefully, identify better ways to meet both its interests and those of the region. Pacific security interests are directly aligned to national development interests. These conversations need to be layered and interconnected.
The fourth is identifying how to work with existing regional systems and structures instead of inventing new ones.
For example, it is not clear how the ALP’s proposed Australia Pacific Defence School will work with the Australia Pacific Security College and the Pacific Fusion Centre established by the last government. Australia also funded the redevelopment of the Black Rock Camp in Fiji, which will be a regional humanitarian response hub and a training facility for armed forces. Australia should consider how the proposed Defence School could complement the camp, to ensure it doesn’t replicate, or potentially compete with, it.
And looking more broadly, it is not clear how the Partners in the Blue Pacific initiative, which Australia, the US, New Zealand, Japan, and the UK announced on 25 June as a new “informal” partner coordination mechanism, will work alongside existing regional coordination mechanisms, such as the Pacific Island Forum Officials Subcommittee on Regional Security and the Cairns Compact on Development Coordination. Again, Australia should prioritise supporting regional cooperative arrangements, rather than creating new ones.
But the key point is ensuring that Pacific Island countries are consulted and involved in the design and implementation of Australia’s Pacific policy. And this shouldn’t be rushed. After a prolonged period in opposition the ALP understandably wants to hit the ground running in the Pacific.
But there is the risk of wasting effort, resources, and goodwill if the Australian government doesn’t make sure that the Pacific is heading in the same direction.
This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.