The Debate | Opinion | Oceania

Australia’s Indo-Pacific Engagement: Fear, Honor, and Interests

Cooperation, competition, and contestation are at the heart of Australia’s engagement in the Indo-Pacific.

Australia’s Indo-Pacific Engagement: Fear, Honor, and Interests
Credit: Depositphotos

The Solomon Islands’ pact with China caught many by surprise, but to others the signs were long evident. At the best of times, Australia’s political leaders struggle to look beyond the tyranny of the urgent to manage longer term issues and that is all the more challenging when a development like this occurs during an election campaign. But visionary leadership is needed that looks beyond the clever way Canberra was outplayed in Honiara. 

Great power contestation is in full swing and likely will present flashpoints, while regional governance challenges and environmental concerns will compete for attention. A three-way overlap is at work including great power contestation, environmental challenges, and governance crises, like we have seen in Solomon Islands in late 2021. 

Looking for answers, some pundits have looked back to the ancient Greeks for a parallel to the so-called Thucydides Trap, which holds that where “one great power threatens to displace another, war is almost always the result.” Today we face layer upon layer of interconnected challenges and opportunities, including along economic, diplomatic, military, and climate lines. What does remain pertinent, though, is the enduring overlap of factors leading to conflict that Thucydides identified more than two millennia ago — fear, honor, and interest.

Events in 2020 and 2021 saw fear surge with an unprecedented pandemic-related disruption, along with heightened competing interests and sense of honor in great power contestation. Along the way, U.S. President Joe Biden has sought to burnish American prestige by declaring the United States “is back.” Many remain skeptical, worried about waning U.S. enthusiasm and the ability to remain engaged, particularly in light of China’s “wolf warrior” diplomacy and its use of “sharp power” sanctions. In addition, China’s adversarial actions in the East China Sea, the South China Sea, and across the Line of Actual Control in the Himalayas point to Beijing’s own insecurities and fears, as well as their own sense of honor. 

China’s assertiveness has also driven a more focused multilateral response, notably the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between India, Japan Australia, and the United States (otherwise known as the Quad), and the trilateral security arrangement between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States (known as AUKUS). Neither of these multilateral arrangements would have emerged without growing unease over Chinese assertive authoritarian behavior coupled with its exponential increase in military power, which was on display at the 2019 military parade.  

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For the United States, given its relative military decline, bolstering the military capability of longstanding ally Australia seems to make sense. Tying in Australia more closely to U.S. plans and encouraging greater spending on interoperable U.S. technology can be seen as adding to the stockpile in case of a major confrontation with China. But it also reveals a greater sense of vulnerability in light of China’s rapid rise

For Australia, China’s list of “14 grievances” are now seen as being too great, effectively a mark of dishonor, generating a backlash. At the same time, greater U.S. and U.K. engagement in the defense of Australia reduces some of the fear of abandonment by “great and powerful friends” while also, ironically enough, bolstering a fear of entrapment, that conceivably could see Australia drawn into a conflict in Asia not of its own making — potentially over Taiwan. 

Technically, AUKUS looks set to bolster Australia’s ability to produce and maintain a supply of precision and long range missile systems, widely seen as a key missing ingredient in the Australian defense force’s ability to generate a deterrence effect. In addition, the proliferation of more, and more sophisticated, air and space surveillance platforms has significantly eroded the degree of stealth of diesel-electric propulsion submarines — especially over longer distances, where they are required to surface to recharge batteries, exposed to detection by would-be adversaries.

Australia’s relationship with Indonesia is perhaps the most important of the ASEAN states. Australia’s track record of acting respectfully, honoring Indonesian sensibilities, is patchy. Incremental progress in the relationship is easily undone over a range of misunderstandings and slights, including over issues such as Jerusalem, beef, boats, spies, clemency, Timor-Leste, and Papua. Both countries have considerable overlapping interests. But they have to find a way to deepen and broaden the bilateral relationship to prevent this cycle from continuing to recur. In considering how to do that, understanding how they got here is important. Bilateral and multilateral engagement, on trade, education, and security including through the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, links like the Ikahan (defense alumni) network, and additional New Colombo Plan engagement may help make that happen.

Beyond these bilateral ties, regional mechanisms are important. Manis is the Indonesian word for sweet. Australia should look to work with Indonesia to make it an acronym for a “sweet” regional maritime cooperation forum including Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, and Singapore. Potentially it could be expanded to MANIS-TPP (by including Timor-Leste, Papua New Guinea, and the Philippines). This wouldn’t replace ASEAN, but it might help these maritime Southeast Asian nations work through some regional challenges together.

In the meantime, while nuclear propulsion has consumed much of the policy space in Canberra, pressing environmental and regional governance challenges loom. The recent violence in the streets of Honiara, the capital of Solomon Islands, points to a range of factors unsettling domestic politics including concerns over corruption, the influence of China-Taiwan rivalry, and competing interests more than environmental concerns. But elsewhere in the Pacific, Australia’s sharp-edged domestic debates over climate policy reverberate. There is a sense that Australia is not being sufficiently respectful of Pacific Island environmental sensibilities, leaving an honor deficit. 

Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s Christian faith helps carry his message to “vuvale” or family in neighboring states. This honoring of Pacific religious sensibilities capitalizes on strongly felt views in many Pacific Islands. Yet that faith is one of not just words but deeds. Although Australia is considered an increasingly secular and cosmopolitan, or post-Christian society, it is still heavily influenced by its Judeo-Christian roots. Morrison’s faith should energize efforts to set about being the instrument to answer the prayers many have offered for change to happen. Yet to an extent these initiatives are being undermined by the perception of Australia as being an environmental laggard. 

The Pacific Islands Forum itself has been strained by rival visions and competing influence. The departure of Kiribati from the Forum coincides with its acceptance of Chinese investment deals and an evident decline in Australian influence on developments there.  

The strained relations with Kiribati have been matched by competing power plays in Tonga. The Australian and New Zealand response to the Tongan volcanic eruption, no doubt, will be seen in part as a response to fears of Chinese interference there. The more recent security crisis in Solomon Islands points to the challenge of contestation, with governance concerns in a weak state affected by a range of environmental challenges. So what is to be done?

One way to address the needs of Pacific island communities while addressing some of Australia’s concerns would be to offer a grand compact to the small Pacific nations. Such a compact would give the islanders citizenship in return for partnerships covering management and policing of their vulnerable exclusive economic zones and territories. Australia’s “compacts of association” could be with countries such as Kiribati (population 115,000), Tonga (107,000), Tuvalu (11,000), and Nauru (11,000). Such an arrangement could be akin to the relationship the United States has with Palau, the Marshall Islands, and Micronesia, and New Zealand has with Niue and the Cook Islands.

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That means Australia would offer residency rights and potentially citizenship to just over 244,000 people and help administer and guarantee sovereignty to a cumulative exclusive economic zone of over 5.1 million square kilometers. Australia would gain economically and politically from bolstering security and stability in the region, while also helping to limit the prospect of destabilizing external interference. 

Critics have suggested this is too neo-colonialist, but such views caricaturize the notion of a compact of association that has worked well with New Zealand, Niue, and the Cook Islands, and which is intended to ensure mutual benefit, not one-sided exploitation. To be sure, for the scheme to work, it must be about honor, dignity, and mutual interests and benefits to avoid being seen as “a neo-colonial land grab.” The proposal would be to offer a compact that is substantive, respectful, inclusive, and voluntary.

Anote Tong, Kiribati’s former president, told the ABC in February 2020 that a grand compact of association would be difficult for small island countries to turn down. Indeed, closer relationships would bring enormous benefits to the Pacific nations, helping them monitor their seas, which were being exploited dramatically by foreign fishing and sea bed exploration.

The islanders have had a cultural predisposition to work with Australia and most likely would be comfortable with a trusting, two-way relationship with Australia. They likely would warmly embrace the idea if Australia was big-hearted enough to meet their needs on the environment and climate change, and if it changed its attitude of flittering between haughty and disengaged. For this to work it would have to be done very much with a “please consider” mindset, not a “here’s what you need to do” one.

A similar but less all-encompassing arrangement also should be considered for the larger Pacific states, including Vanuatu (population 270,000), Solomon Islands (600,000), and Fiji (898,000). To begin with this could involve additional assistance in patrolling their seas and in the provision of residency rights in Australia.

For this scheme to work, the Australian federal government will need to take a more visionary and less transactional approach to engagement with the neighbors. It must take felt needs into account, it must honor commitments and act honorably, respecting local sensibilities. 

This article is an edited version of the original published by Melbourne Asia Review, Asia Institute.