Australia’s Pacific ‘Step-up’ Policy
Australia turns to the Pacific Island States to shore up its defences against what is its most pertinent geopolitical threat; China.
In China’s quest to secure its borders and project its power beyond its boundaries, a renewed emphasis has been placed on the Pacific Ocean. China has demonstrated its ambition to assume the mantle of a superpower through its economic, military and geopolitical actions. The United States continues to maintain its status as the dominant power in the world. The US effectively controls the Pacific, in order to secure its Western seaboard by employing its dominant naval power. China has sought to make inroads into the Pacific power projection capabilities of the US by engaging in activity that has sought to undermine American primacy. This project has demanded that the Chinese focus on traditional allies of the US including Australia. China has often employed economic tactics and soft-power diplomacy in order to gain a strategic advantage.
Australia has recently displayed cognizance of the geopolitical threat that China represents. On June 28, 2018, Australia’s parliament passed a package of new laws focused on preventing foreign interference in the domestic affairs of the country. Although the law fails to explicitly mention China, its adoption came following months of diplomatic tensions between the two nations over interference in Australian domestic affairs.
Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison has adopted a “step-up” policy in the Pacific, demonstrating a geopolitical understanding of the region, especially of its island states. Due to the geographical isolation of these islands and their minuscule populations, essential services are often lacking, making outside assistance an attractive offer to their leaders. Morrison’s step-up policy has sought to prevent any foreign powers from gaining significant influence, especially in the South Pacific. The policy includes more aid, security assistance, diplomats and most importantly, face-to-face interaction.
On March 8, 2019, Anne Ruston, Australian minister for international development and the Pacific said of Australia’s Pacific Ocean Policy; “We have perhaps not put as much attention and effort into our own region as we should have.” The admission comes amongst a flurry of activity focused on Australia’s own ‘backyard,’ seeking to make amends. The admission is of particular import given Beijing’s growing economic, political and military activity in the region.
The PM visited Vanautu and Fiji in January 2019, while the Chief of the Defence Forces followed the premier’s visit with trips to Vanuatu, Tonga, Fiji and the Solomon Islands. The Foreign Minister, Marise Payne inaugurated the $144 million Coral Sea Cable System, a submarine fibre optic link between Sydney and Honiara as well as Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea. Other ambitious projects are in the works, including a commitment to help Papua New Guinea achieve a 70% electricity rate by 2030. Such assistance endears Pacific Island nations to Australia, drawing them closer to its sphere of influence, serving as a buffer between China’s activities and itself.
Australia’s renewed focus on Pacific nations has been hampered by disagreements over the conservative Morrison government’s sceptical position of climate change. Many Pacific Islands view climate change as an existential threat, with the PM of Fiji accusing Australia as putting its coal industry “above the welfare of the Pacific peoples.” Canberra’s diplomats are likely to attempt to separate issues of climate change from its daily activities.
Many Australian farmers have been hit by drought, and view the money being employed for aid in the Pacific as being taken from them. Domestic resistance to Morrison’s foreign policy in relation to China may hamper the overall effect of his administration’s strategic direction.
Our assessment is that Australia’s ‘step-up’ Pacific policy is in response to Chinese efforts to gain the upper-hand in the region. We believe that Australia will continue its focus on the region, bolstering its ties with Pacific Island nations.