Room to Step-Up: Australia’s Bid to Maintain Influence in Oceania (1/2)

As China becomes increasingly assertive in Oceania, Australia seeks to reinforce and strengthen ties with its Pacific neighbors. However, its success in reengaging the Pacific will depend on its willingness to step up on climate issues.

Australia has long been perhaps the preeminent partner to the Pacific. It is the largest provider of aid to the region, and for many Pacific Island Countries (PICs), Australia is a top trading partner. Its comparative size and proximity make it a generally more available and generous partner than other traditional Pacific allies such as New Zealand, the US, France, or Japan. Additionally, Australia likely has the strongest and most immediate vested interest in the security and stability of the region in comparison to other regional powers. Australia often explains its robust relations with neighboring PICs through the lens of a shared history and deep cultural ties; Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison has stated that Australia regards its Pacific neighbors as vuvale – a Fijian word for family.

This article series explores Australia’s partnership with the Pacific, the effect of China’s increased presence in Oceania, and the need for Australia to meaningfully re-engage its neighbors. This article will discuss Australia’s current engagement efforts.

Australia has faced little competition for influence in Oceania in the post-war era. But today, the balance of power (and certainly the balance of payments) in the Pacific is shifting. Many in Australia fear that Aussie influence will be hedged out by Chinese investment. That investment has created a great deal of worry among today’s Pacific powers, and the possible security implications of China’s new Oceanic interest have given rise to a great deal of analysis.

Whether or not such alarm is founded, China is reshaping the way Australia approaches the Pacific. Australia – much like New Zealand and Japan – is very publicly pursuing a policy of reengagement. The Pacific Step-up, first outlined in defense and foreign police white-papers in 2016 and 2017, has garnered a substantial amount of attention in the last few years. The Step-up seeks to reinvigorate and strengthen partnerships in the Pacific and will deepen Australia’s economic commitments to the region. It is is a reactionary policy – a direct response to China’s growing role in the South Pacific – but it also comes at an opportune moment.

It is undeniable that China’s presence in the region has grown exponentially in recent years. However, what really has been undermining Australian leadership in Oceania is the Australian government’s reticence to support necessary climate response measures. PICs have sharply criticized Australia for its position on climate change and its unwillingness to work with PIC leaders on the issue. The Pacific Step-up is an important chance for Australia to step up its climate change response.

Regional Engagement

Economic Engagement

Australia’s PIC partnerships reflect the significance of Australia’s economic, security, and strategic interests in the Pacific. Australia maintains relations with the Cook Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), Fiji, French Polynesia, Kiribati, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea (PNG), the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, and it has an established presence in French Pacific Territories such as New Caledonia and Wallis and Futuna. Beyond bilateral engagement, Australia is an active member of and contributor to regional organizations such as the Pacific Island Forum (PIF) and The Pacific Community (SPC). Engagement with these partners and fora goes far beyond what is described here; however, the following efforts have and will be significantly impacted by the Step-up.

Australia has a strong record of economic engagement with its Pacific partners, and such engagement is only set to deepen under the Step-up. Since 2011, Australia has contributed USD $7.38B across 8738 projects in Oceania, all of which has been provided in grants, or official development aid (ODA), as opposed to loans. A substantial majority of Australian Aid projects relate to health, education, or government and civil society. Projects have included a Health Capacity Development & Service Delivery program in PNG, an Access to Quality Education program in Fiji, and Regional Assistance Missions and Police Force Contributions to the Solomon Islands, among a great many other efforts.

Australia administers two labor mobility programs. The older of the two is the Seasonal Worker Program, under which workers from Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Timor-Leste, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu are employed in seasonal agricultural jobs to fill labor shortages in Australia. Seasonal workers can stay for up to nine months, and workers have access to additional skills training for the duration of their stay. Since 2012, the program has provided more than 33,000 seasonal jobs. With the Step-up, a new labor mobility program, the Pacific Labor Scheme, runs alongside the seasonal worker program. The Scheme allows low to semi-skilled workers from the same countries to work jobs across a number of sectors (in addition to the agricultural sector) in rural and regional Australia for up to three years.

Defense Cooperation

With regard to regional security and stability, Australia has a long history of defense cooperation with the Pacific – namely via the Department of Defence’s Pacific Maritime Security Program. This program, which replaced the longstanding Pacific Patrol Boat Program, will see a AUD $2B commitment to the region over the next 30 years and has three components: “Pacific Patrol Boat replacement, integrated regional aerial surveillance, and efforts to strengthen regional coordination.” By 2023, the program will have provided 19 new Guardian-class patrol boats with “long-term Australian sustainment, training, infrastructure, and advisory support” to 12 PICs. Since 2017, the program has provided civilian contracted aerial surveillance to support maritime patrols in PICs’ exclusive economic zones (EEZs). The program will also provide capacity-building trainings and new equipment to enhance PICs ability to collect, analyze, and share information; conduct cooperation patrols; and run maritime coordination centers.

Another important Australian contribution to regional stability is its commitment to the FRANZ agreement. The FRANZ agreement was signed by Australia, New Zealand, and France in 1992; the agreement commits these states to coordinate disaster reconnaissance and relief assistance for partnered PICs at the request of the partner state. FRANZ is civilian led and supported by defense forces; within the Australian government, FRANZ is housed within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). The FRANZ partners have been absolutely crucial in coordinating and providing aid in the aftermath of many disasters over the last few decades, including to Fiji following Hurricane Winston. However, as will be discussed in greater detail below, beyond disaster relief with FRANZ, climate response measures have been largely absent in Australia’s policy toward the South Pacific.

Human Connections

There’s also a deep human and cultural connection between Australia and the PICs. There are a large number of Australians originally from the Pacific. As recently published by the Lowy Institute:

According to the most recent Australian Bureau of Statistics data, while Australian residents born in Australia increased by a mere 26% between 1996 and 2018, those with country of birth as: Fiji increased by 86% (to 75,930); Samoa increased by a massive 197% to 31,610; Tonga increased by 63% to 12,650.

Those Pacific Islanders may stay and have families in Australia. They also may travel back and forth to their home islands or send home remittances. Ultimately for many PIC residents, Australia isn’t just your neighbor, it’s your family members.

Claire Huitt is a joint degree student at the University of Texas, pursuing her J.D. from Texas Law and her M.A. in Global Policy Studies from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. Claire is a Brumley Next Generation Fellow for National Security Law with the Robert Strauss Center for International Law and Security and holds a Graduate Portfolio in Security Studies from the Clements Center for National Security. She has interned with the Department of State at U.S. Embassy Tokyo and the Department of Justice with the Office of International Affairs on the team for Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Claire graduated from Southern Methodist University and holds a B.A. in economics, political science, and public policy.

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