Jack Butcher | Indo-Pacific Fellow
The new Albanese Government’s Plan to Build a Stronger Pacific Family is certainly a step in the right direction for Australia’s long-term engagement with Pacific Island countries (PICs).The government has committed to building an Australia-Pacific defence school, boosting climate infrastructure spending and re-establishing the ABC’s regional transmissions. These efforts will go a long way to increasing Australia’s regional presence, especially as concerns mount in Canberra over China’s perceived military ambitions.
Coinciding with Australia’s plan, United States President Joe Biden unveiled the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF) at the recent Quad Leaders’ meeting in Tokyo. The IPEF aims to counteract China’s growing economic influence by strengthening cooperation in fair trade, supply chain resistance, clean energy, and anti-corruption. There are 14 members, with Fiji becoming the latest to join the group. Despite some hailing it as “America’s pivot to Asia 2.0”, the IPEF remains in its initial phase. It may face difficulties attracting smaller PICs due to its expansive format. Similarly, the newly-launched Partners for the Blue Pacific pledges targeted incentives to engage PICs. However, the island nations will treat attempts to bypass existing diplomatic mechanisms with caution.
Immediately after the drafts of China’s Common Development Vision and Five-Year Action Plan for the Pacific were leaked, most analyses from Western think tanks and media focused on how China’s presence would harm US and Australian security interests. Some proposed countering Chinese influence by establishing a joint US-Australian military presence in one or more PICs, a forming a Monroe doctrine-style agreement preventing non-resident powers from deploying military personnel, and even calling for regime change in the Solomon Islands. Such proposals may provide an enhanced sense of security in the short term. However, they echo a familiar and convenient narrative in Western discourse on the Pacific that denies PICs collective agency and relegates them to a subordinate role in their own regional affairs.
Advancing the Pacific Islands as a new theatre of geostrategic competition in the Indo-Pacific has detrimental consequences for PICs. The collective platform that PICs have traditionally relied upon to voice and champion shared issues may diminish. If regional powers exploit PICs for geopolitical gain, including incentives to reward some PICs over others due to perceived allegiances, PICs and even islands within them could splinter into sub-regional groupings that fracture their voice at the international level.
Proposals for enhanced security, economic, and environmental cooperation from Indo-Pacific powers such as the US, Australia, and China should aim to complement and strengthen existing multilateral frameworks. The Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) has remained the key forum representing the region’s interests since 1971, and it facilitates consensus-building to harmonise policy issues between states. However, divergences are emerging. The Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Kiribati, Nauru and Palau threatened to withdraw last year over the election of Cook Islander Henry Puna, which they perceived violated the “gentleman’s agreement” that leadership of the PIF be rotated between Melanesia, Polynesia and Micronesia. Kiribati has since walked away from the PIF. If the PIF were to fail, competing powers could then fill the void and harm consensus-based frameworks that aim to promote beneficial outcomes for the citizens of individual PICs.
China learned this the hard way when it attempted to side-step consensus-based frameworks. PIC leaders rejected the security component of China’s Common Development Vision and Action Plan. However, this should not be treated as a victory for US and Australian interests but as an important reminder for incumbent and future governments not to neglect the interests of PICs. This is their bottom line for engagement. The cyclical political systems of major democracies in the region have resulted in pledges for aid followed by cutbacks. If governments sceptical of climate change and international trade return to power in the US or Australia and withdraw from previous commitments, PICs may perceive any future attempts to promote genuine initiatives in the region as unsustainable and opportunistic.
There must not be any future complacency on core issues for PICs. Otherwise, it is possible that PICs will consider China’s agreements and assurances more lucrative. Veiled threats, virtue signalling, and rhetoric from governments that disregard PICs’ collective agency may push effective “free and open” initiatives away. This would be a loss for regional democracies to maintain a strong presence and for PICs’ long-term development prospects. The US and Australia could give PICs an equal opportunity on the world stage by encouraging admission to the IPEF as a collective body under the auspices of the PIF. This would show a commitment to upholding PICs’ collective agency and show a sustained commitment to considering PIC interests as crucial to the broader security of the Indo-Pacific.
Jack Butcher is the Indo-Pacific Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.