Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Foreign Minister Penny Wong’s recent tour of the
Indo-Pacific region unfolded amidst fears of mounting great power rivalry in the region.
The visit comes only months after US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken visited the region to reaffirm Washington’s commitment to the Indo-Pacific. These recent state visits paint a picture of an increasing great power rivalry in the region, not seen since the Second World
However, it remains debatable as to whether all attempts of US-aligned powers to hedge Chinese influence in the region are strategically sound. The increased attention to the region is seen as largely unwelcome by Indo-Pacific countries, themselves voicing their desire not to be ‘dragged’ into broader geostrategic competition. Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, a fierce advocate for the region, states that “geopolitical point-scoring means little to anyone whose community is slipping beneath rising seas, whose job is being lost to a pandemic, or whose family is impacted by the rapid rise in the price of commodities”.
Furthermore, historic rhetoric that refers to the Indo-Pacific as Australia’s ‘backyard’
undermines the sovereignty of countries in the region and is arguably counterproductive to Australia’s interests in the Indo-Pacific. Thus, Australia must instead undertake genuine amelioration efforts in partnership with Indo-Pacific countries. Such an adjustment in Australian foreign policy would assure the region that Australia values their respective sovereignty and does not see Indo-Pacific countries as mere strategic stepping stones or a buffer zone.
So, just how can Australia reconfigure its Indo-Pacific foreign policy to respect the
sovereignty of island nations while also securing Australia’s interests in the region? Australia must actively listen to Pacific Island nations and address their most pressing issues, especially the imminent threat of climate change. In doing so, Australia can effectively reassert its commitment to the region as a principal ally.
While China’s significant financing and logistics capacity gives it an advantage over Australia in climate mitigation diplomacy, it is not a bar to constructive Australian involvement in the region. Canberra maintains other key strategic advantages owing to Australia’s geographic proximity and an extensive history of cooperation.
Australia’s geographic proximity serves as a strategic advantage, demonstrated by the
Australia-Asia PowerLink plan. The proposed infrastructure project will see a 4,200km
undersea cable transport renewable energy from Darwin to Singapore and the greater Indo-Pacific. Not only could this project realise Australia’s ambitions as a renewable energy exporter, but also see up to $2 billion in export revenue, and offset 8.6 million tonnes of CO 2 emissions per year. A similar Chinese project to South-East Asia simply would arguably not be feasible due to geographic constraints.
This is in addition to other cooperative deals, such as the recently announced Pacific
Engagement Visa, which would grant 3000 workers permanent residency in Australia. Such a program would see Australia host a substantially increased Pacific Island diaspora, thus boosting people-to-people links in the community. Also, Australia’s commitment to reinstate Indo-Pacific broadcasting capability will see shortwave radio broadcasts restored to effectively reinvigorate perceptions of Australia abroad.
Ultimately, the most important lesson to be learned from the ongoing competition in the region is the recognition that Indo-Pacific countries are not receptive to being treated as mere stepping stones to score geopolitical points. In defiance of this notion, Indo-Pacific countries have proven themselves capable of leveraging their position in the region to their advantage, as demonstrated by Fiji’s recent part-rejection of China’s proposed cooperation agreement. These rejections would suggest that Chinese and US-led partners must vie to offer the most attractive deals for cooperation and trust Indo-Pacific countries to pick those that are most in their national interest. Wong’s recent announcement of ‘no strings attached’ proposals for climate change action and other policies of social cohesion are indicative of this renewed approach. Such an approach fundamentally challenges the notion that countries caught in great power rivalries are doomed to languish. Instead, Indo-Pacific countries can leverage their position to genuinely benefit from Australian or Chinese cooperation and address sources of insecurity such as climate change.
Flynn Wedd is an undergraduate student at the University of Adelaide. He has a keen interest in Australia-China relations and is currently studying a Bachelor of Laws and International Relations.