The Pacific Islands Forum was a low-point for Australia’s relationship with its neighbours. Last month, leaders of South Pacific nations gathered in the Pacific nation of Tuvalu to discuss challenges facing the region, with negotiations almost breaking down twice over the climate crisis.
The outcome of the forum fell short of what Pacific Island leaders had hoped. The original Tuvalu Declaration called for swift and urgent action to address climate change – requiring signatories to further reduce greenhouse gas emissions, cease construction of new coal mines and contribute to the international Green Energy Fund. However, the final declaration that Australia agreed to (the Kainaki II declaration) mandated none of the above.
The result was unsurprising. Prior to the forum, Pacific Minister Alex Hawke warned that Australia would not sign anything that compromised its coal industry. To that end, the Government was successful in securing its immediate economic interests. But refusing to negotiate on coal may come at the cost of Australia’s long term foreign policy interests.
Australia’s 2016 Defence White Paper noted that climate change will bring instability to the region. With this, the South Pacific is exposed to “actors from outside the region with interests inimical to ours”, threatening Australia’s national security. The 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper echoed that sentiment, stating that stability in the Pacific is “vital to our ability to defend Australia’s northern approaches, secure our borders and protect our exclusive economic zone”.
These clauses reflect the Government’s anxiety about challenges to its dominance in the region. In particular, China’s increased investment and engagement with small Island nations is often seen as a threat to Australia’s influence in the Pacific. This seems valid, considering that during the forum China made a point of positioning itself as the preferred regional power for Pacific Island nations to collaborate with on climate change.
When these foreign policy objectives are taken into account, Australia’s approach to the South Pacific seems conflicted. On one hand, Australia has invested billions in foreign aid and is increasing its diplomatic engagement to strengthen partnerships and ensure stability. On the other, it refuses to address the Pacific leaders’ greatest concerns, and with each act of bad faith its partnerships are undermined and instability is stoked.
These competing interests raise an important question for Australia’s future in the region: Can its foreign policy interests be secured without urgent action on climate change?
The reactions of Pacific Island leaders to Australia’s intransigence suggests not. Tuvalu’s PM Enele Sopoaga said that “flaring language” was exchanged with PM Morrison during negotiations. The divide between leaders’ priorities was captured well by Sopoaga’s emotional remarks: “You are concerned about saving your economy… I am concerned about saving my people”.
Fijian prime minister Frank Bainimarama displayed a similar anger towards the outcome of the negotiations, stating it “was probably one of the most frustrating days I’ve ever had”. Bainimarama went as far as to question his personal relationship with Morrison, and accused the Government of “taking a big step backwards” in its Pacific relations. A pointed remark aimed at the Morrison government’s feted Pacific ‘step up’ policy. These comments serve as a stark reminder that Australia cannot staunchly defend its coal industry while maintaining its regional influence.
Beijing’s opportunistic response to Pacific island leaders’ criticisms of Australia reaffirms this point. A week after the forum, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuan asserted that it “wasn’t the first time leaders of the Pacific Islands resented Australia’s behavior”.
Shuan then directly challenged Australia’s standing in the Pacific, stating “with… affinity and good faith on one side (China) and a condescending master on the other (Australia), it is easy to see the stark contrast,” stoking deeply held anti-colonial feelings among the nations of the Pacific.
For now, Australia’s investment and engagement with Pacific Island nations will maintain multilateral ties and support its foreign policy objectives. However, with the increasing threat of sea level rise combined with China’s growing presence, Australia must take stronger action on climate change to have any chance of maintaining primacy in the region.
For Australia, effective climate policy will be the key to the Pacific.
Ben Grace is the Climate Change and Energy Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.