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Australia in its Pacific Neighbourhood

The monster cyclone that ravaged Vanuatu on March 14 must provide a wake-up call for Australian policymakers. Though Australia already substantially supports its Pacific neighbours through development assistance, these efforts will require a boost in coming decades to better respond to humanitarian emergencies and prevent destabilisation due to natural disasters.

Australia has a long history of supporting Pacific Island nations in times of hardship and unrest, as well as in times of peace. Australia assists in administering the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) that has helped to stabilise the political situation in the Solomon Islands since 2003 following ongoing civil conflict. Australia provided assistance in the 2014 democratic elections in Fiji, including work in an observer capacity. The government responded swiftly to offer financial aid and personnel to assist in the clean-up following Cyclone Pam this month.

More broadly, Australia administers the largest aid program to the Pacific region. Australia contributed 60 per cent of all aid from Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries to the Pacific between 2010-12, averaging over US$1billion annually.

Despite recently announced aid cuts, the government looks set to maintain a focus on aid delivery to the Pacific; 92 per cent of Australian aid will be targeted to the Indo-Pacific region in 2014-15. This is in line with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Six + Two + N foreign policy focus, in which N stands for Australia’s immediate Pacific and Asian neighbourhoods.

It is in Australia’s national interest for peace, stability and the rule of law to prevail in its region. Australia’s past engagement in the Pacific reflects its desire for continued development. The importance of active engagement will only increase in coming decades, in large part due to climate change and the potentially disastrous effects that rising sea levels and higher-intensity storms will bring.

The Fifth Assessment Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) highlights the seriousness of the situation in the Pacific. The report predicts, with a high level of confidence, “severe sea flood and erosion risks for low-lying coastal areas and atoll islands” in coming decades. Sea-level rise is almost certainly increasing in its speed, but climate change will have an effect beyond increased flood risk. Clean water sources are likely to be compromised by encroaching salt water from the ocean. Coral reef and other marine environments will be degraded due to increases in sea temperature, affecting fish populations. Changes in rainfall patterns are projected for the Pacific. These phenomena will impact negatively upon Pacific Island nations’ economies and the well-being and safety of their populations, should large-scale adaptation initiatives not be forthcoming.

An extreme scenario could involve large population displacement in the affected regions. Australia, given its wealth, location and vast landmass, should be in a position to accommodate these displaced persons. Australia has the capability to do so and has shown as much in the past in its acceptance of thousands of Vietnamese refugees during the Vietnam War.

However, before we begin contemplating this potential disaster scenario, concentrated and continuing efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change are essential. A large part of the development aid delivered to the region should be funneled into adaptation projects to mitigate the effects of rising sea levels and better prepare Pacific Island nations for high-intensity storms. Furthermore, foreign nationals should not simply complete projects independent of local communities. Residents of those at-risk islands must be empowered to carry out adaptation initiatives themselves, and to work towards the development of their own countries independently.

Many have taken notice of China’s ever-increasing official development assistance (ODA) to states in the Pacific. While there has been talk of China ramping up its aid to increase its strategic presence, in Australia we must think on how to better cooperate with China to improve development outcomes in the region. The US has also lifted its ODA delivery to Pacific Island nations, seemingly in response to China’s growing share of the pie.

As the greatest aid donor to the Pacific, Australia can take the lead in pushing joint ODA programs with both China and the US. Australia has already developed a strong aid partnership with New Zealand, allowing both states’ resources to be pooled and generating better overall development outcomes than any one state could hope to achieve independently. The same principle holds with both China and the US, as they continue to pour money into the region. Jenny Hayward-Jones of the Lowy Institute summarises the situation well: “Australia and the United States should cooperate with China in areas that support Pacific Island priorities rather than building any new security or diplomatic arrangements designed to compete with it”. Australia’s long experience in aid and development, and its close ties with both the US and China, put it in an ideal position to encourage combined aid programs.

At home, Australia needs to dramatically improve its efforts to address climate change. The abolition of the Carbon Tax and watering-down of the Renewable Energy Target are not positive signs. Marshall Islands Foreign Minister Tony de Brum last year expressed his dismay at Australia’s “backsliding” on climate change action. Efforts in this area must be greatly improved. Aid is immensely important, but without active work to decrease Australia’s carbon emissions Pacific Island nations will be fighting an uphill battle.

Australia is serious about working closely with Pacific Island nations. In the coming decades its efforts will have to go even further. Now is the time to start preparing.

Sebastian McLellan is the Australian Foreign Policy Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.

This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence. Please email for more information.

Image Credit: International Organization for Migration (Flickr: Creative Commons)

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