When it comes to diplomacy and international affairs, several major geopolitical regions are collectively perceived as the most important on the global stage. In times of great uncertainty and crisis, the limelight is often cast upon key players amongst the prominent nation-states of Europe and the Asia-Pacific.
However, in areas of trade, military cooperation and the provision of aid, the significance of Australia’s Pacific island partners is not to be underestimated. Directly pitted against China’s expansionist foreign policy and growing influence in the region, Australia has a unique opportunity to build upon existing relations and rise to the forefront of Pacific affairs.
Due to our close geographical proximity to island nations such as Fiji, Vanuatu, Kiribati and Tuvalu to name a few, the Australian Government has the ability to shift its focus towards developing strong bilateral partnerships built on mutual interests of security, sovereignty and future prosperity.
In a recent submission to the Federal Parliament’s ‘Inquiry into Australia’s defence relationships with Pacific island nations,’ ANU Associate Professor Joanne Wallis outlined Australia’s primary strategic interest in the Pacific Islands as maintaining our status as the region’s ‘principal security partner.’
With the recently announced ‘Pacific Step-up’ agenda being prioritised as a leading foreign policy initiative, Australia cannot afford to act complacently while China sets out to purposefully undermine our standing within the region. Instead, Australia must set out to broaden its scope amongst a variety of bilateral objectives.
One such key area of interest for the revitalisation of Australia’s position amongst its Pacific allies is in defence and security. Australia has already committed to establishing a specialised Pacific military unit aimed at countering China’s pervasive exercise of power, as well as providing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief to our allies in the region.
Working cooperatively with the United States military, the Australian Defence Force has conducted a number of large-scale operations in the Pacific to exercise its power and provide a show of support for our closest neighbours and allies. Additionally, the Australian Government has provided AUD 100 million worth of financial support for Pacific countries facing the effects of devastating cyclones and the ongoing COVID19 pandemic.
Given the substantial absence of nations holding operational military forces in the Pacific as pointed out by Anthony Bergin, a senior fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Australia has the golden opportunity to consolidate strong defence capabilities in defiance of China’s escalating control over the region.
As China clearly sets out their ambition towards becoming the dominant power in the Pacific region, the goal of military expansionism has culminated in efforts to pursue the ‘Chinese dream’ set out by President Xi Jinping. This vision incorporates components of the controversial ‘Belt and Road Initiative,’ which has seen a boost in foreign investment from Chinese-backed corporations on the shores of island nations such as Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea.
Due to the growing financial obligations and reliance on China from these nations, concerns over the possibility of military bases being established in the near future are not unfounded. Furthermore, a recent incident involving a Chinese plane preventing an Australian aircraft carrying much-needed aid to cyclone-ravaged Vanuatu from landing has acted as a catalyst for a fresh consideration into Australia’s diplomatic position in the Pacific.
More now than ever, Australia needs to continue to exert its influence in the Pacific to ensure that the threat of Chinese expansionism does not jeopardise our strong existing relations with our island neighbours. With a clear goal in mind, Australia’s foreign policy agenda in the Pacific needs to reflect the importance of maintaining our status as the region’s dominant security partner.
Jeremy Mann is currently studying a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Melbourne, majoring in Politics/International Studies and Economics.