The Pacific step-up: making a difference or more of the same?

Australia needs to have more frank conversations with Pacific states

Alia Huberman

International relations | Pacific

10 July 2019

Six months after PM Scott Morrison’s launch of the ‘Pacific pivot’, it’s time to take stock, writes Alia Huberman,

The announcement of Scomo’s ‘Pacific pivot’ last November sparked a long overdue discussion in Australia of our role and goals in the Pacific, and saw the region dominating headlines as it never had before. But will policy hype translate to practical success? And have we finally cracked the code of speaking with—rather than talking at—our island neighbours?

Firstly, it is of crucial importance that a Pacific step-up has become a done deal on both sides of the Australian aisle.

Substantive policy speeches by both government and opposition leaders have reaffirmed a pressing need for greater engagement with the Pacific states.

While still disputing some specifics, there is consensus on a number of themes: bumped-up investment, enhanced security cooperation, greater diplomatic presence, private sector engagement, soft power outreach through Australian public media bodies and a tone that’s more cooperative than condescending.

Australia’s Pacific policy has been lacking in stability and continuity for too long, but this sort of resounding bipartisanship takes the Pacific from a talking point to a permanent priority that’s no longer up for discussion.

The policies themselves are also direct responses to decades of expert pleas from the field and finally deliver a package of policies highly promising in scope, aims and budgetary commitments for their implementation. The vast majority of the step-up proposals are about establishing, at long last, a robust and respectful diplomatic presence, and building foundations that support independent capacity.

They are teach-a-man-to-fish policies and for that, the Government must be commended.

The step-up is finally seeking to make our engagement with Pacific states about more than just security. In his announcement speech, Morrison admitted that Australia has taken its influence in the Pacific for granted. Hopefully, between those lines is an implied end to the condescending tone with which we have characterised the region, either as an ‘arc of instability’ or a mere speed-bump on China’s road to domination. The infrastructure, investment and economic initiatives proposed as part of this ‘new chapter’ will build local prosperity, foster mutual trust and encourage sincere cooperation.

Importantly, a mutually-beneficial loan financing structure—in contrast to the predatory interest rates and unrealistic repayment schemes offered by China—makes borrowing both attractive and sensible for Pacific states.

More on this: Futons are burning: Is Japan ready to amend its colonial past?

It also demonstrates an important lesson Australia is learning, one that it could teach other regional powers: we may not be able to compete with China in the quantity and volume of loans, but we can compete in quality.

As disillusionment grows across the Indo-Pacific towards the false promises of the Belt and Road Initiative, this is exactly the kind of genuine alternative Australia and its allies should offer. Australia is finally doing a lot better in policy—but its messaging and tone is still struggling to hit the right note.

It is undeniable that the timing and political energy behind the step-up is not really about the Pacific at all. As altruistic as these policies are, fears of a growing Chinese influence on our doorstep and instincts of strategic denial are the real motivating forces.

A common refrain when discussing Australia-Pacific engagement is that we should avoid making that strategic calculus too explicit. Instead, we should engage Pacific states with a genuine collective vision and build, as Morrison calls it ‘a relationship for its own sake’.

There are elements of truth to this—talking over the heads of Pacific states and treating them like pawns in a game they’re not playing isn’t going to do us any favours. But equally important is being honest with the Pacific.

We need to create a genuine discussion over the future of our region, what its states want their role to be, and how Chinese influence fits into that, for all of us.

Australia has developed a two-faced attitude regarding the rhetoric behind our Pacific policy. To the Australian public and to our American colleagues, engagement with the Pacific is a defence against China.

When we say we’ve taken the Pacific for granted, we frame it like high school boys who didn’t give the girl next door a second look until our quarterback nemesis started knocking at her door.

But when we speak directly to the Pacific, our step-up is all about family. Prosperity. Stability. Respect.  

Here’s the thing: both lines are true. But withholding one from the other creates a perception of disingenuousness. It makes us seem like we’ve got something to hide. And we don’t.

We need to stop tiptoeing around the topic of Chinese influence for diplomatic caution. For the Indo-Pacific’s middle and small powers, the defining question of the next half-century is whether we resist, manage, coexist with, or submit to China.

When Australia has that conversation in isolation, it loses the opportunity to shape it.

For true progress and cooperation, we must bring the Pacific into the tent, and have a frank dialogue about China—as equal partners.

Trust must be earned between Australia and the Pacific and it won’t happen overnight. It will require a willingness to have some uncomfortable—but incredibly important—honest ‘family’ discussions.

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