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Australia’s Pacific Ambiguity

The Pacific islands are becoming a key factor for nations with strategic interests in Asia. Australia needs to step up its game.

By Balaji Chandramohan for

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.

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.

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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.

Although not directly involved in the Cold War, Australia was concerned enough at the prospects of a full-scale war during the period to sign, with New Zealand and the United States, the ANZUS Treaty, which it believed provided reassuring additional security in light of its having come under attack from a foreign power (Japan) for the first time in World War II.

The Soviet threat may have gone, but particularly since the 2002 Bali bombings, and with growing tensions between China and the United States in the Pacific, the importance of ensuring stability in, and strategic support from, the Pacific nations is again becoming clear for Australia.

To ensure its influence, therefore, the Australian leadership might find that its best approach is to convince the United States that its global hegemony depends not only on reshuffling its military presence in East and South Asia, but in positing forces in its own backyard.

For this to happen, Australia would have to nudge the United States into expanding its cooperative maritime enforcement agreements while helping to facilitate already signed agreements between the US and Pacific Island nations such as Kiribati, Palau, Tonga, Marshall Islands and the Cook Islands, which allow local law enforcement officers to ride with some US Coast Guard vessels to conduct law enforcement missions in their waters. The plan certainly has powerful support, and was promoted by Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell during his testimony to the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific in late September.

With China positioning itself to exert greater influence over the region, Australia will lose out of it doesn’t properly come to terms with the sensitivities of its neighbourhood. Countries such as Fiji, the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea are in the midst of political crises and, for now, the people of these small island states continue to look to Australia for assistance.

If Canberra isn’t able to offer these nations the reassurance they need, then they may find themselves looking elsewhere, and China could end up matching its post-Cold War sway in Africa in Australia’s backyard. 

Balaji Chandramohan is editor of World Security Network for Asia. He can be reached at: [email protected]