Australia’s Pacific Ambiguity
Image Credit: mark Heard

Australia’s Pacific Ambiguity

 
 

For most politicians, being appointed foreign minister would mark the pinnacle of their political career. But Australia’s Kevin Rudd would likely have had mixed feelings after being offered the post in September following the Labor Party’s general election win. After all, not only is Rudd a former prime minister, but he now serves under a leader who ousted him from that position in the first place.

But having accepted the call, Rudd must now draw upon his considerable reserves of foreign policy experience to grapple with a growing reality—Australia’s historical dominance in its South Pacific backyard is under threat.

At a time when both India and China are actively courting many of the Pacific island nations in an effort to secure the right to station military bases there or help develop their natural resources, Australia could find itself being left behind in the scramble for influence. Indeed, China already seems to have taken a lead, offering countries including Fiji (which is currently under military control) political support.

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Meanwhile, despite the understandable focus on the general election campaign, questions were still raised over Australia’s failure initially to schedule a ministerial-level representative to attend this year’s Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), held in Vanuatu in early August (Prime Minister Julia Gillard eventually dispatched then Foreign Minister Stephen Smith).

To be fair, Australia did demonstrate some commitment to the region at about the same time, deploying a team of election observers, through the PIF, for the Solomon Islands’ general election on August 4. But even the need to engage with a closely fought election campaign at home does not excuse Gillard’s absence—and the apparent consideration of sending only an ambassador—especially during such an important period of transition in the region.

Democracy is expected to return to Fiji in 2014, at least if the military leadership there is to be believed, while New Caledonia could be as little as four years away from voting on independence from France. Australia has made significant contributions to the PIF in the past, but shunning the forum at a time of such change makes it look out of touch now.

Yet despite this diplomatic hiccup, the recent tensions in the Pacific centring around an increasingly assertive China and its expansive territorial claims could offer Australia a window for re-engaging.

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