Australia’s defence interests in the Pacific region have long been a critical part of its foreign and security policies. But in recent years, there has been growing concern that Australia’s regional dominance – and its sought-after position as the South Pacific’s ‘principal security partner’ – are being usurped by the rise of other actors, putting Canberra’s interests at risk.
With the deployment of Australian special forces to secure November’s APEC meeting in Papua New Guinea’s capital Port Moresby and recent speculation that Australia will begin regular military rotations to PNG, Canberra is attempting to re-establish its deep security links with the region.
Canberra’s main concern in its increasingly active security arrangements in the region is undoubtedly pointed towards China’s growing regional presence and interest. Not only is China becoming a major military and security player, but its political and developmental influence is also growing. Beijing’s foreign aid commitments in the region have skyrocketed to $5.88 billion, second only to Australia. There have been fears that China’s military presence is also expanding to include the construction of foreign military bases in Pacific nations, as it has done in Africa.
While China’s growth would be of concern to Canberra, Australia has enjoyed a lengthy and multisectoral security relationship with the Pacific. It has played a historically dominant role in providing regional security, with recent interventions in the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and Timor-Leste to counter the effects of state fragility. Canberra considers itself the region’s de-facto security guarantor, which is emphasised in the 2016 Defence White Paper and the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper. Canberra has sought to justify the region’s security importance because of its geographic proximity and its maritime trade importance, concerned that the so-called ‘arc of instability’ jeopardises its regional economic and security interests. Despite this centrality that the region has had in recent years, its engagement with the region has been highly inconsistent.
There have been some successful aspects of Australia’s defence engagement in the region. The cornerstone of this has been Australia’s Defence Cooperation Program (DCP) which, since its inception in the 1960s, has provided significant regional engagement in defence and capacity building with the nearer region, mainly in the Pacific, Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean. Policymakers have recognised the importance of the DCP to the Pacific - between 2007 and 2017, while real DCP funding to Southeast Asia dropped significantly, the Pacific has increased by almost 70 per cent, with funding to PNG specifically rising by close to 250 per cent. As part of this program, Australian Defence Force and Federal Police have provided security training, equipment, meeting of shortfalls and the strengthening of domestic security capacity. The Pacific Maritime Security Program, a continuation of its Patrol Boat Program, is another crucial part of this engagement that provides 21 Guardian-class boats to 13 Pacific nations to protect their maritime interests. The recently signed Biketawa Plus security statement is another step in the right direction.
While these initiatives are undoubtedly positive, there is also significant scope for Australia to work together with other partners in the region to uphold the rules-based global order. Canberra must recognise that the region is not only ‘Australia’s patch’, but contains other traditional partners such as New Zealand, the United Kingdom and France who all hold significant security and political interests in the region. Many of these nations have announced their intention to ‘re-engage’ amid China’s increasing activity, with New Zealand’s ‘Pacific reset’ in the region acknowledging, as Foreign Minister Winston Peters said, that national security ‘is directly affected by the Pacific’s security’.
There is also the opportunity to work more closely with China. There has been some limited security coordination between Chinese and Australian naval during the recent Exercise Kakadu. This increased military and security cooperation would serve to not only increase trust and lessen misunderstandings which may lead to conflict but also to build deeper and more broad cooperation that can extend into other areas, including that of transnational crime, people smuggling, climate change mitigation and adaptation and humanitarian aid.
Australia cannot rest on its notion of regional leadership. Pacific states have been critical of Canberra’s dominant, interventionist and unilateral approaches to the region not just in terms of security but also in economic and environmental issues. This is where engagement is key.
Australia’s security and defence policies in the Pacific and its renewed emphasis on regional defence engagements are critical to ensuring regional stability and upholding of the rules-based global order, limiting the rise of other actors who present a threat to regional stability. However, to ensure future success, there is greater scope for Canberra to work with other partners to secure the region, while importantly also changing its own discourse surrounding the region’s place in national security.
Euan Moyle is the Australian Foreign Policy Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.