Pacific demands

It’s not wrong to call it the greatest failure of Australian foreign policy since Vietnam or even since World War II. The decision of Solomon Islands to sign a security pact with China was not inevitable. It was the outcome of a decade of neglect and indifference.

Experts wonder at how Australia could have so lost its influence. Julie Bishop says the woman who replaced her as Foreign minister should fly to the Solomons to find out what is in the agreement. Writing in The Sydney Morning Herald, Peter Hartcher said: “China has stolen a march on Australia, a 4000-kilometre advance from its nearest existing military base, without firing a shot.”

China’s growing influence in the Pacific is almost entirely the fault of the federal government. They pulled funding out of the region and China filled the breach. As ever, policy was set through a lens of meanness and parochialism.

Before the 2013 election, Tony Abbott boasted that he would cut foreign aid. “We will build the roads of the 21st century,” he said, “rather than shovel money abroad.”

In 2015, after his government had taken $11 billion from the foreign aid budget, he said it was important he looked after Australia first. “Because if you don’t have your domestic economic house in order, it’s very difficult to be a good friend and neighbour abroad.”

Under Abbott, spending on aid dropped to levels unseen since the 1960s. The Australian Agency for International Development – AusAID – was dismantled after 40 years of operation. He rationalised it like this: “The objective of aid is not to create a relationship of permanent dependency. The objective of aid is to ensure that countries are helped to develop to the point where they don’t need aid anymore.”

Much of this money was redirected to defence. Since the Coalition took office, spending on the military has gone from being five times greater than the foreign aid budget to 10 times greater. The effect of this has been to make Australia less safe.

The terms of the security pact are not public. It is expected that China will use the arrangement to establish a base in the region. Troops may be stationed there. Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull rightly describes it as a “failure of Australian foreign policy”.

The government has comprehensively ignored the Pacific. They have treated Nauru and Papua New Guinea as client states and allowed their democracies to decline. They have dismissed pleas for action on climate change, essentially dooming island countries to disaster.

When it became obvious that China was readying a deal, Scott Morrison was still inattentive. He looked all the way down the list and sent Zed Seselja. This is likely because he knew he had already lost: there was no point sending the Foreign minister, only to be embarrassed.

Of course, the embarrassment is not simply Morrison’s. The Coalition government has so traduced Australia’s reputation in the region, has been so feckless and self-important, that the embarrassment and instability will be ours to face for decades.

Morrison is campaigning on his supposed strong line against China. In reality, his government has done more to put the country in the line of war than perhaps any other in this country’s history. Much of this has been for domestic gain, playing the politics of conflict. It has been a game to Morrison and this week is a reminder that he doesn’t understand its rules at all.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 23, 2022 as "Pacific demands".

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