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Australia’s new government is racing to repair relationships with Pacific Island nations as China works to expand its influence across the region. By Edward Cavanough.

Penny Wong’s Pacific mission

Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama and Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong in Suva.
Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama and Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong in Suva.
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“The first thing I wanted to do after being sworn in, is to share a few thoughts with our Pacific family,” said Penny Wong with a wry smile in her first public statements as Australia’s 40th minister for Foreign Affairs.

Within minutes of assuming her new role, Wong made it clear that the perceived inattention towards the Pacific under the former government was over. Australia promised to listen, Wong said, in a pitch that opened a frantic first fortnight on the world stage. After an extraordinary election campaign in which, unusually, foreign policy challenges were front and centre, the government needed to hit the ground running.

Within two weeks of taking office, Anthony Albanese and Penny Wong will have held direct, in-person talks with seven nations, with the foreign minister also delivering a keynote address to the Pacific Islands Forum, the key multilateral body in the Pacific. The pace reflects a genuine urgency within the Albanese government to recast Australia’s global reputation, and an awareness of the activist foreign policy role Australia now has to take in order to manage increasingly fraught international and regional dynamics.

The new government’s Pacific focus is no accident. During the campaign, Albanese argued that the Morrison government’s lack of regard for Pacific concerns had undermined Australia’s standing in the region and potentially led to Beijing’s increasing engagement. This week, concerns about China’s role in the Pacific reached new heights as the nation’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, embarked on a 10-day, eight-nation sweep of the Pacific Islands. Starting with the signing of a controversial security pact with Solomon Islands, Wang subsequently stitched up bilateral deals with Samoa, Fiji, Niue and Tonga.

Most controversially, the Chinese foreign minister had sought to sign a region-wide deal covering issues as diverse as economic engagement, fisheries management, policing and IT support. The deal, which was leaked to Reuters by a disgruntled Pacific government, was ultimately knocked back. But its ambition represented a marked shift in China’s approach to the Pacific, causing even more anxiety to security officials in Canberra who had already been caught off guard by Solomon Islands’ increasing embrace of Beijing.

The Pacific ministry was once a low-profile portfolio, often occupied by junior members of parliament under the Coalition. But the centrality of Pacific affairs during the election campaign has elevated the role. Given the Albanese government’s overt focus on the region, pressure will be on newly sworn-in minister Pat Conroy to deliver.

“Pacific Island nations are sovereign countries who will make decisions based on what’s in the best interests for their people,” Conroy tells The Saturday Paper. “Ultimately I believe that’s why China’s proposed deal fell through.”

Dr Tess Newton Cain, who heads Griffith University’s Pacific Hub and is a leading analyst on Pacific Island affairs, agrees. She believes China’s ambitious attempt to sign a region-wide deal reflected a misunderstanding about how things get done in the Pacific. 

“[The deal] was all a bit rushed. It was very wide-ranging. There was a sense that [Pacific nations] had to take it all and there were certain aspects that people were uncomfortable with,” she says.

On region-wide issues, Pacific Island countries typically try to seek consensus before agreeing to major initiatives. China’s inability to achieve a quiet consensus prior to its sweeping regional tour this week is being viewed as a significant misstep. “The process issue is almost as significant as the content issue,” says Newton Cain of the deal.

The Samoan prime minister, Fiamē Naomi Mata‘afa, was among those who criticised China’s process in the lead-up to the deal.

“We have not made a decision, as we didn’t have enough time to look at it,” she told local media in Samoa.

But Samoa’s reticence to sign a region-wide deal with China did not stop it signing its own bilateral agreement with Beijing when Wang visited Apia.

In Tonga, another stop on Wang’s tour, China’s rushed multilateral approach is also meeting criticism. Lord Mata‘i‘ulua ‘i Fonuamotu, a former member of Tonga’s parliament, told The Saturday Paper the China deal wasn’t necessarily a failure but “what was presented was merely done so through the wrong channels and not enough time was given for any well-thought-out consideration”.

This week, Penny Wong has returned to the region. She is visiting both Tonga and Samoa to continue spruiking her message of change. On Thursday in Samoa, Wong announced an eight-year partnership to support human development in the nation.

But the task for the Labor government in the Pacific is daunting. During the election and in its first days in office, Labor announced significant policies related to the Pacific, including expansive reforms to visa arrangements, more than $500 million in additional aid spending, as well as new ideas such as a Pacific Climate Infrastructure Financing Partnership, which is intended to tackle issues including energy poverty. Delivering on these pledges could prove fraught.

Tess Newton Cain believes some Pacific Island countries will be concerned that the Australian visa policy, for example, could lead to “brain drain”, with the best and brightest Pasifikas seeking a future in Australia to the detriment of their own countries. Although Labor’s other pledges are being well received, Pacific countries are used to big promises from international donors that never materialise.

Pacific Islanders are saying of Australia’s new approach “this sounds good, we like the tone”, says Newton Cain, “but we need to see how this plays out”.

Perhaps the strongest pledge the new government has made is its commitment to “end the climate wars” in Australia and recognise the existential threat climate change presents to Pacific Island nations.

“Unfortunately the previous government did not take this seriously and at times made jokes about the effects climate change was having on our neighbours,” Conroy tells The Saturday Paper. “So we will take climate action seriously, and we will deliver on our commitments, which will go a long way to repairing our relationship with our Pacific family.”

In July, when the Pacific Islands Forum next convenes, Labor’s climate pledges will be heavily scrutinised, Newton Cain believes. The region’s leaders “are going to want more, and they’ve already made that clear”, she says.

While improving ties with the Pacific has been an immediate focus of the new government, Albanese is now turning his attention to South-East Asia. This weekend, the prime minister travels to Indonesia to confer with President Joko Widodo. The country is traditionally the first stop on a new Australian prime minister’s itinerary but Albanese’s required presence at the Quad in Japan interceded.

Indonesia – the world’s third-largest democracy after India and the United States – is quickly emerging as an economic superpower. But the new government faces a delicate balancing act between realising its determination to be a better friend to the Pacific and its commitments to strengthen ties with Jakarta. The long-running struggles in West Papua, which is controlled by Indonesia, remain a sore point for many Pacific nations, especially Vanuatu. Since the 1960s, West Papuans have been pushing for independence, with dissidents facing increased violence at the hands of Indonesian authorities in recent years. In the lead-up to his visit, Albanese is facing calls to do more to address concerns over the province.

Veronica Koman is an Indonesian lawyer who has represented numerous West Papuan dissidents in Indonesian courts, and is now living in Australia working for Amnesty International.

“The Albanese government’s approach towards the Pacific family is promising, but the issue of West Papua will be the litmus test if this new approach is real or just an empty promise,” says Koman.

She contends that many people in the Pacific “have always regarded West Papuans as part of their family”, with some viewing issues in West Papua as “the next biggest problem in the Pacific after the climate crisis”.

Dr Camellia Webb-Gannon is a scholar at the University of Wollongong and author of Morning Star Rising, which tracks West Papua’s independence struggle. She tells The Saturday Paper that, while Australia cannot solve the West Papuan issue, working with Jakarta on the issue presents an opportunity to reinforce the bilateral relationship.

“Australia’s contribution to addressing human rights in West Papua could ultimately strengthen ties between the two countries,” she says. “The longer Australia shirks its responsibility to West Papuans, the more dire the consequences for West Papuans’ wellbeing, Indonesia’s democratic reputation and long-term investment from Australia in dealing with the spillover effects of violence.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 4, 2022 as "Penny in the Pacific".

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Edward Cavanough is a PhD candidate at the University of Adelaide, studying Solomon Islands’ China switch, and director of policy at the McKell Institute.

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