China wants to be a friend to the Pacific, but so far, it has failed to match Australia’s COVID-19 response



FLORENCE LO / REUTERS POOL

Ian Kemish, The University of Queensland

The photo of the Chinese ambassador to Kiribati walking on the backs of schoolboys caused a storm on social media earlier this month. Some saw it as a symbol of China’s sinister intentions in the Pacific and others argued it reflected local customs which should be respected.

The Chinese foreign ministry said in its defence,

We fully respect local customs and culture when interacting with the Pacific countries. When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

Let’s set aside the argument over the incident itself. I’d just note in passing there were several occasions when, as a senior Australian representative in the region, I had to quietly back away from ceremonies where my involvement could have sent the wrong signal.

The foreign ministry’s statement raises a more important point. As a genuine regional partner, it’s not enough for China to “do as the Romans do”. Those who aspire to a meaningful partnership with the Pacific also need to be clear about what they stand for themselves.

What then, does China stand for in the Pacific? Does it really have what it takes to be a constructive, long-term partner for the region?

What does China want from the Pacific?

There’s been no clear answer to the first question from Beijing, apart from broad statements about “mutual respect and common development”.

China maintains it does not have strategic interests in the region, and that its engagement there is simply a function of its growth.

Many observers point to its hunger for resources, however, and believe its growing military engagement in the Pacific betrays a long-term objective to establish a naval base there — an unthinkable outcome for Australia.

Others say China’s financial aid is essentially “debt-trap diplomacy”, with unsustainable loans providing a pathway for China to control the strategic assets of Pacific states.




Read more:
Why China’s ‘debt-book diplomacy’ in the Pacific shouldn’t ring alarm bells just yet


The Lowy Institute has shown that China has not been a major driver behind rising debt in the Pacific, but it nevertheless has a responsibility to help prevent future debt risks. The scale of its lending patterns — and the absence of mechanisms to protect recipients from debt — present substantial hazards for some countries.

There’s been no sign yet that Beijing is prepared to collaborate with western donors as they engage with regional countries to mitigate these risks. This would signal China cares about the region’s sustainability — an important qualification for a genuine partner.

A development site for a Chinese Investment bank in Nuku’alofa, Tonga.
Mark Baker/AP

A top-down approach isn’t going to be effective

Chinese representatives sometimes struggle to understand that centralised control is not the Pacific way. In the commercial sphere, effective partnerships require patient management of multiple stakeholder relationships — with landowners, local authorities and environmentalists.

In Papua New Guinea, however, Chinese firms like Shenzen Energy and Ramu Nickel have been disappointed that agreements they have signed with the country’s prime minister haven’t guaranteed smooth project implementation.




Read more:
China’s push into PNG has been surprisingly slow and ineffective. Why has Beijing found the going so tough?


China also showed great frustration in the Solomon Islands when provincial leaders thanked Taiwan for coronavirus-related aid, which was delivered after the national government had switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing.

Success also requires conscious support for national development aspirations and a willingness to lean in at difficult moments.

Australia and New Zealand don’t always escape criticism from the region; climate change and labour market access continue to be sore points.

But over time, these traditional partners have shown their commitment to the region’s development through the investment of billions of dollars. They have helped run elections, repeatedly deliver disaster relief and mount stabilisation missions in regional hot spots.

This kind of comprehensive partnership, recently reaffirmed in a new economic and strategic development agreement signed between Australia and PNG, is outside Beijing’s traditional comfort zone.

Australian humanitarian aid sent to Vanuatu earlier this year after Cyclone Harold.
Andrew Eddie/Department of Defence

China hasn’t stepped up with real coronavirus support

The current pandemic poses very serious risks to the fragile economies of the Pacific. It’s an important moment for regional partners to show their commitment.

Beijing has highlighted its Pacific Conference on COVID-19, a video link-up in May between the Chinese vice foreign minister and senior Pacific representatives, as a sign of its support for the region.

But there were no substantive outcomes, and despite multiple press releases, China appears to have announced only A$3.5 million in virus-related regional support.




Read more:
How might coronavirus change Australia’s ‘Pacific Step-up’?


This contribution by the world’s second-largest economy is about half what one Australian mid-sized company has committed in COVID-19 support to PNG alone.

It also pales in comparison to the A$100 million that Australia announced in March would be redirected from existing aid programs to mitigate the regional effects of the virus.

Australia has also stepped up in other practical ways, for instance, by processing some coronvirus tests from the Pacific, sending rapid diagnostic testing equipment to the region and deploying Australian Medical Assistance Teams to support PNG’s response to rising cases there.

And perhaps most notably, Australia announced recently it will deliver a future coronavirus vaccine to the people of the Pacific, once it’s approved.

China might actually have some things to offer the region, including lessons from its highly successful development model.

But it will need to be more thoughtful about the region’s actual needs and aspirations if it wants to build a substantial and effective partnership with the Pacific in the wake of this pandemic.The Conversation

Ian Kemish, Former Ambassador and Adjunct Professor, School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Pacific people have been ‘pummelled and demeaned’ for too long – now they’re fighting back



Arorae/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Patrick D. Nunn, University of the Sunshine Coast and Roselyn Kumar, University of the Sunshine Coast

Sea level rise is a serious threat to the low-lying islands of the Republic of Kiribati in the central Pacific Ocean. To fight it, their president recently announced he plans to raise the islands to make them habitable as long as possible.

President Taneti Maamau will seek support from China for this ambitious strategy, and recently switched his nation’s allegiance from Taiwan to China to make this happen. It’s a bold move, considering China’s sights are set on military and economic expansion across the Pacific region, yet Maamau insists on maintaining Kiribati’s independence.




Read more:
As Australia’s soft power in the Pacific fades, China’s voice gets louder


Maamau’s response to the looming climate crisis in Kiribati shows he is a president determined not to capitulate to western narratives of vulnerability.

Unlike President Anote Tong before him, who held the widely commended policy of migration, the Maamau viewpoint is not simply a difference of opinion – it’s a culturally grounded expression of human dignity.

Demeaning narratives

Kiribati is made up of atolls – the sinking summits of volcanic islands from the flanks of which coral reefs grow upwards. Unconsolidated sands and gravels tossed up onto these reefs by storm waves form the atoll islands, which are typically narrow, sinuous and low.

Most of us cannot imagine the everyday challenges of life there. The ocean is omnipresent, impossible to ignore, and a threat that could extinguish life on the island with just a short-lived flourish.

President Taneti Maamau stands behind a podium at a UN conference.
President Taneti Maamau recently switched his allegiance from Taiwan to China.
UNIS Vienna/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

But for too long, the people of Kiribati have been pummelled and demeaned by global narratives that treat them as vulnerable.

This view ignores the fact that proud peoples have lived on atolls in the equatorial Pacific for millennia, surviving countless disasters.

For example, the people of Pukapuka Atoll in the northern Cook Islands speak of a night about 400 years ago as “te mate wolo” (the great death). Then, a giant wave washed over the island, destroying all the houses and food gardens, and killing everyone save two women and 17 men who were left to rebuild Pukapukan society.

Fight or flight

By the end of this century, the average global sea level may be over a metre higher than today. The highest point of most atolls in Kiribati (and elsewhere) is less than three metres.

Such stark figures might ring alarm bells for those pondering atoll life, but many atoll islands show few signs of shrinking. That said, no scientists studying this unexpected resilience believe the situation will last indefinitely.




Read more:
Dynamic atolls give hope that Pacific Islands can defy sea rise


Like sprawling low-lying river deltas and low-lying coasts in every part of the world, the effect of rising sea level for the remainder of the 21st century and beyond will force profound changes to coastal geographies – atoll islands included.

There are two ways to respond. One is to agree with the Western narrative and accept that the rapidly rising sea level will progressively eat away at the fabric of your islands until they become uninhabitable, and eventually submerged. This idea of moving elsewhere – to a less fragile place – is a natural response, and the view former Kiribati president Anote Tong held.

But Tong is no longer in charge. Taneti Maamau has been elected president of Kiribati in the last two elections. His response, which clearly has popular appeal given his latest resounding win, 26,053 to 17,866, is quite different.

He is confronting the overwhelmingly negative international rhetoric about atoll futures, designing and driving a way forward that will ensure livelihoods can be sustained in Kiribati for the foreseeable future.

He needs help, a role China appears willing to assume, but on his own terms – no large loans and no military bases.

Whether this position proves realistic is uncertain. Like many smaller Pacific Island countries, Kiribati has exhibited a growing dependence on foreign aid for the provision of basic services over the past few decades.

However, such dependence is unsustainable given the likely soaring costs of domestic adaptation to climate change in donor countries.




Read more:
Pacific Islands must stop relying on foreign aid to adapt to climate change, because the money won’t last


Yet Kiribati is a special case. Its Exclusive Economic Zone (where it claims exclusive rights for economic activities such as fishing or drilling) covers a huge area of almost 3.5 million square kilometres, giving it a bargaining chip with more affluent yet less well-endowed nations.

Raising the islands

Today, raised causeways connect many atoll islands rising from the same reef for people and vehicles to cross.

Causeways are relatively cheap to construct but also inhibit water movements between atoll lagoons and the surrounding ocean, focusing wave attack on particular parts of islands.

Tarawa, an atoll and the capital of the Republic of Kiribati. People have lived on atolls for millennia and survived disasters.
Shutterstock

Maamau’s plan is to replace these causeways with bridges, to improve lagoon-ocean water exchange and perhaps help restore island coasts to their natural state. It’s an expensive and engineeringly-challenging solution the Chinese are likely to relish given their construction of lengthy bridges at home.

In addition, Maamau’s government will deploy dredgers to suck up vast quantities of sand from lagoon floors and dump it along exposed island coasts, not just for protection but also to build up more land for planting crops.




Read more:
Unwelcome sea change: new research finds coastal flooding may cost up to 20% of global economy by 2100


This is a short-term low-cost solution, but one likely to prove sustainable for only a few decades at most, given the expected increases in prolonged island inundation in this region.

It would be a tragedy if Pacific Island countries, their people and their cultures, became lost a century or more from now.

But as the pandemic has reminded us, we in developed countries are much like the people of the atolls: we’re living on the edge and want to believe life is indefinitely sustainable where we are. The truth is, we have to adjust to survive.The Conversation

Patrick D. Nunn, Professor of Geography, School of Social Sciences, University of the Sunshine Coast and Roselyn Kumar, Adjunct Research Fellow in Geography and Social Sciences, University of the Sunshine Coast

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Sun, sand and uncertainty: the promise and peril of a Pacific tourism bubble



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Regina Scheyvens, Massey University and Apisalome Movono, Massey University

Pacific nations have largely avoided the worst health effects of COVID-19, but its economic impact has been devastating. With the tourism tap turned off, unemployment has soared while GDP has plummeted.

In recent weeks, Fiji Airways laid off 775 employees and souvenir business Jack’s of Fiji laid off 500. In Vanuatu 70% of tourism workers have lost their jobs. Cook Islands is estimated to have experienced a 60% drop in GDP in the past three months.

In response, many are calling for the Pacific to be included in the proposed trans-Tasman travel corridor. Such calls have come from tourism operators, politicians and at least one health expert.

Quarantine concerns aside, there is economic logic to this. Australians and New Zealanders make up more than 50% of travellers to the region. Some countries are massively dependent: two-thirds of visitors to Fiji and three-quarters of visitors to Cook Islands are Aussies and Kiwis.




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A four-day working week could be the shot in the arm post-coronavirus tourism needs


Cook Islands has budgeted NZ$140 million for economic recovery, but this will increase the tiny nation’s debt. Prime Minister Henry Puna has argued for a limited tourism bubble as soon as New Zealand relaxes its COVID-19 restrictions to alert level 1. Cook Islands News editor Jonathan Milne estimates 75-80% of the population is “desperate to get the tourists back”.

A Pacific bubble would undoubtedly help economic recovery. But this merely highlights how vulnerable these island economies have become. Tourism accounts for between 10% and 70% of GDP and up to one in four jobs across the South Pacific.

The pressure to reopen borders is understandable. But we argue that a tourism bubble cannot be looked at in isolation. It should be part of a broader strategy to diversify economies and enhance linkages (e.g. between agriculture and tourism, to put more local food on restaurant menus), especially in those countries that are most perilously dependent on tourism.

Over-dependence on tourism is a trap

Pacific nations such as Vanuatu and Fiji have recovered quickly from past crises such as the GFC, cyclones and coups because of the continuity of tourism. COVID-19 has turned that upside down.

People are coping in the short term by reviving subsistence farming, fishing and bartering for goods and services. Many are still suffering, however, due to limited state welfare systems.

In Fiji’s case, the government has taken the drastic step of allowing laid-off or temporarily unemployed workers to withdraw from their superannuation savings in the National Provident Fund. Retirement funds have also been used to lend FJ$53.6 million to the struggling national carrier, Fiji Airways.




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Holidaying in a disaster zone isn’t as crazy as it might seem


Fiji has taken on more debt to cope. Its debt-to-GDP ratio, which ideally should sit below 40% for developing economies, has risen from 48.9% before the pandemic to 60.9%. It’s likely to increase further.

High debt, lack of economic diversity and dependence on tourism put the Fijian economy in a very vulnerable position. Recovery will take a long time, probably requiring assistance from the country’s main trading partners. In the meantime, Fiji is pinning hopes on joining a New Zealand-Australia travel bubble.

Rarotonga International Airport: three-quarters of visitors are Aussies and Kiwis.
http://www.shutterstock.com

Out of crisis comes opportunity

Supporting Pacific states to recover is an opportunity for New Zealand and Australia to put their respective Pacific Reset and Step-Up policies into practice. If building more reciprocal, equitable relationships with Pacific states is the goal, now is the time to ensure economic recovery also strengthens their socio-economic, environmental and political infrastructures.

Economic well-being within the Pacific region is already closely linked to New Zealand and Australia through seasonal workers in horticulture and viticulture, remittance payments, trade and travel. But for many years there has been a major trade imbalance in favour of New Zealand and Australia. Shifting that balance beyond the recovery phase will involve facilitating long-term resilience and sustainable development in the region.

A good place to start would be the recent United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific report on recovering from COVID-19. Its recommendations include such measures as implementing social protection programs, integrating climate action into plans to revive economies, and encouraging more socially and environmentally responsible businesses.

This is about more than altruism – enlightened self-interest should also drive the New Zealand and Australian agenda. Any longer-term economic downturn in the South Pacific, due in part to over-reliance on tourism, could lead to instability in the region. There is a clear link between serious economic crises and social unrest.




Read more:
How might coronavirus change Australia’s ‘Pacific Step-up’?


At a broader level, the pandemic is already entrenching Chinese regional influence: loans from China make up 62% of Tonga’s total foreign borrowing; for Vanuatu the figure is 43%; for Samoa 39%.

China is taking the initiative through what some call “COVID-19 diplomacy”. This involves funding pandemic stimulus packages and offering aid and investment throughout the Pacific, including drafting a free trade agreement with Fiji.

That is not to say Chinese investment in Pacific economies won’t do good. Rather, it is an argument for thinking beyond the immediate benefits of a travel bubble. By realigning their development priorities, Australia and New Zealand can help the Pacific build a better, more sustainable future.The Conversation

Regina Scheyvens, Professor of Development Studies, Massey University and Apisalome Movono, Senior Lecturer in Development Studies, Massey University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How might coronavirus change Australia’s ‘Pacific Step-up’?



Scott Morrison attends the Pacific Islands Forum in Tuvalu in 2019.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

Tess Newton Cain, Griffith University

Across the globe, the coronavirus pandemic has prompted countries and governments to become increasingly inward-looking. Australia is not immune to this. One of the effects of this situation has been that the “Pacific Step-up” appears to have dropped entirely off the political radar.

The step-up is – or was – the signature foreign policy of the Morrison government. Although it predates Scott Morrison becoming prime minister, under his leadership it had really come to the fore. We saw an increase in ministerial visits to the region, a ramping up of labour mobility opportunities for Pacific islanders, and the establishment of a A$2 billion infrastructure financing facility.

So, how does the Pacific Step-up need to evolve to help respond to the challenges posed by coronavirus?

It’s important to acknowledge that Australia and the island members of the “Pacific family” share more than just an ocean. They have many common challenges. Addressing them requires sharing resources. The coronavirus response presents an opportunity to move the Pacific Step-Up from something that is done “to” or “for” the Pacific to something that Australia does “with” the Pacific.




Read more:
Despite its Pacific ‘step-up’, Australia is still not listening to the region, new research shows


It is too easy for the Australian media (and indeed the Australian public) to perpetuate the trope that Pacific people are helpless – chronic victims who need to be rescued from whatever calamity has most recently befallen them. Now is the time for Australian policymakers to step up and demonstrate real respect for their Pacific counterparts.

On top of the increasingly devastating effects of climate change, Pacific island countries are now managing the twin challenges of a potential public health emergency and its severe economic ramifications.

When it comes to the former, the focus has been on prevention. Many countries took swift and significant steps to minimise the risk of the virus entering their communities. Borders have been closed, restrictions on movements enforced and health and medical systems enhanced.

Pacific island countries are also already feeling the economic impacts of the global shutdown. This is particularly evident in those countries that rely on tourism and remittances for revenue, livelihoods and employment.

Several countries have moved quickly and decisively to introduce economic support and stimulus packages to meet some of the most pressing needs of their populations. Maintaining these into the medium and longer term will be a challenge.

In Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji and Tonga, the impacts of the recent Tropical Cyclone Harold are presenting additional challenges. Reaching Category 5 strength, it caused more than 30 deaths and left large amounts of damage and destruction in its wake. Australia and other partners (particularly France and New Zealand) have provided assistance to government agencies in the region that are charged with responding to disasters of this type.

In the Pacific, and among many Australian commentators, it is widely acknowledged that the step-up is driven largely by geo-strategic anxiety about the growing influence of China in the Pacific islands region. Coronavirus has done little to dilute this angst. In some instances, it appears to have accentuated it. Certainly, China has made it abundantly clear it is ready, willing and able to be a friend in need for Pacific island countries.

A more sophisticated and nuanced Pacific Step-up that addresses the challenges posed by coronavirus provides Australia with an opportunity to demonstrate to Pacific counterparts its ability and willingness to offer something that is different and more valuable than is available elsewhere.

This can take one or more of several forms. First of all, Australia should continue to advocate to the global community the need to provide tailored financial support to Pacific island countries. This must include lobbying for meaningful debt relief to underpin economic recovery.

The IMF has already made some moves in this regard. Australia has also moved quickly in relation to its most recent loan to PNG. When the Pacific Islands Forum’s finance and economic ministers meet online in the near future, this will likely be on the agenda. Australia should look to have something concrete to put forward in support of this, including offers to lobby the G7 and G20.




Read more:
Can Scott Morrison deliver on climate change in Tuvalu – or is his Pacific ‘step up’ doomed?


Recently, New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters raised the possibility of a New Zealand-Australia “bubble” based on low numbers of infections in both countries. He saw this as a basis for reopening the borders to allow for freer movement of people and goods.

Pacific island countries that have no COVID-19 cases – there are several – should look to be part of a “Pacific bubble” if this conversation goes forward. This would maintain Pacific islanders’ participation in labour mobility schemes.

Australia and New Zealand are also the key markets for Pacific tourism. The sooner tourists can be welcomed back to the resorts and beaches, the sooner island livelihoods can be restored.

The rhetoric of the Pacific Step-Up has been couched in terms such as “Pacific family”. We now need to know what this means for how Australia can and will support Pacific states and communities in the face of coronavirus.The Conversation

Tess Newton Cain, Adjunct Associate Professor, Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Despite its Pacific ‘step-up’, Australia is still not listening to the region, new research shows



Mick Tsikas/AAP

Leanne Smith, Western Sydney University

The Australian government has spent the past year promoting its “Pacific step-up” as one of the country’s “highest foreign policy priorities”.

Although there has been some progress on the diplomatic front in the past year – an increase in diplomatic visits, a boost in foreign aid and a new A$2 billion infrastructure financing initiative – there is some way to go to bring balance, mutual respect and a sense of long-term partnership and commitment to our relations with the region.

New research shows people in three of Australia’s closest Pacific neighbours – the Solomon Islands, Fiji and Vanuatu – are concerned Australia does not know how to engage successfully as part of the Pacific community.

Three key messages came through:

  • the quality of our relationships matter more than the quantity of our aid or trade

  • our values, norms and ways of doing things are a vital part of how we conduct our engagement with the Pacific

  • Australia, and its historical relationship, is valued but we are one of many partners for Pacific islanders.

Late last year, the Whitlam Institute at Western Sydney University commissioned a policy research project led by the peacebuilding NGO Peacifica and Pacific specialist Tess Newton Cain. It aimed to understand how people in the three island nations view Australians and the government’s policies in the Pacific.

We conducted focus groups and one-on-one interviews with 150 participants from varying backgrounds, including people from urban and rural settings, women, young people, business people and those engaged in civil society and government. These conversations were then followed by expert seminars in Canberra and Suva.

The full report will be released at the Australasian Aid Conference on February 17.

‘Stifled by a degree of parochialism’

The participants in our surveys praised Australia’s efforts to empower women, as well as our humanitarian assistance programs, for their effectiveness and impact. But beyond that, the picture was more bleak in terms of whether we have the right policy and diplomatic priorities.

Across the three countries, there was a similar concern of a lack of balance and equality in the Australia-Pacific relationship and a belief Australia doesn’t truly hear the perspectives of its neighbours.




Read more:
Can Scott Morrison deliver on climate change in Tuvalu – or is his Pacific ‘step up’ doomed?


There was also a perception of a certain level of racism and disrespect directed towards people from the Pacific. As one participant said, the relationship is

layered over and stifled by a degree of parochialism that is not only unnecessary, it’s counter-productive.

Our participants pointed to numerous examples of how Australians lack cultural sensitivity in their dealings with the Pacific, especially compared to people from New Zealand and even China. As one participant noted:

China is listening and looking, observing.

They also expressed major dissatisfaction with the contrast between the welcome Australians receive when they come to the Pacific compared to the welcome islanders receive when they come here. Visa conditions were a major part of this concern.

Remove the visa requirement to allow South Sea countries to be able to have access to a region that they helped to develop.

When discussing aid, our participants noted problems with the role of international NGOs working in the Pacific, many of which are based in Australia. Participants were concerned by the Pacific’s over-reliance on international NGOs, the crowding out of local partners and the failure of governments and international NGOs to appreciate and acknowledge the value of local knowledge.

The importance of recognising Pacific sovereignty

Historical memory runs deep and policy approaches to the region need to take into account colonial histories – including Australia’s own role.

For these nations, the late 19th century practice of “blackbirding” – the kidnapping of South Sea islanders as indentured labour for Australian plantations – is still very much part of the historical framing of the relationship with Australia.

Our participants also took very seriously issues of their own sovereignty, independence and the importance of national ownership of their futures. They reflected a desire for developing long-term and sustainable bilateral relations based on mutual respect and common interest.

One participant said,

as a Pacific islander, these are our countries, this is our place. Whatever countries want to do to help us should be something that is beneficial for us but also creating relationships. That is what our culture is all about, creating lasting relationships, not just to fulfil their own agendas and leave us.

Scott Morrison has stressed the importance of the ‘Pacific family’, but the message isn’t resonating completely in the region.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

The role of Indigenous Australians

Interestingly, our research shows Australian domestic politics are important to our relations with the region.

It’s not surprising Australia’s climate policies impact how we are perceived in the region, but our policies toward Indigenous people are also significant.

Our participants felt Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders were almost invisible in Australia’s relations with the Pacific and this has limited our understanding of – and potential for engagement with – the region.




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Pacific Island nations will no longer stand for Australia’s inaction on climate change


Repeatedly, the point was made that Australia lacks a clear sense of identity and connection to place and this is hampering our relationships in the Pacific. As one participant said,

Although we are from the same region, the Pacific Islands and Australia rarely speak with one voice … When you see international meetings, Fiji and other Pacific countries are sitting on one side of the table, while Australia, New Zealand and the US are always sitting over there.

Ways to improve our understanding of the region

While our research shows there is a genuine warmth in the Pacific toward Australia, it also makes clear we could be doing much better.

One perceived flaw of the “Pacific step-up” is that it’s a unilateral Australian initiative for the region, not a shared agenda.




Read more:
As Australia’s soft power in the Pacific fades, China’s voice gets louder


We need to listen more to the national and international aspirations of Pacific islanders. We also need to expand our engagement beyond traditional diplomatic and government links. For many respondents, cultural and faith communities represent international linkages that are at least as important as nation-state relations.

Our report will make a number of recommendations for more effective Australian policy-making. One idea is co-hosting a regional cooperation summit, where a diverse range of regional policy-makers and communities can explore issues that are of utmost importance for Pacific peoples.

And as our research shows, strong Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership and participation in such a gathering would be essential.


Correction: This article has been amended to correct the time period of blackbirding from the late 18th century to the late 19th century.The Conversation

Leanne Smith, Director – Whitlam Institute, Western Sydney University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

As Morrison heads to the Pacific, our nearest neighbours will be looking for more than kind words


Mark Kenny, Australian National University

Scott Morrison travels to Europe for D-Day commemorations next week. While there, he may also hold talks with leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel ahead of the G20 meeting in Japan in June.

With the UK and US in the midst of internal and international repositioning –otherwise known as turmoil – and with China continuing to flex and grow, safeguarding Australia’s strategic and commercial interests has rarely been more complicated, nor more of a singular Australian responsibility.

Somewhat perversely, this may explain why Morrison’s first stop as a freshly re-elected prime minister will not be London or Washington, or even Berlin, but rather, the Solomon Islands capital of Honiara.

That is significant. Whoever won the May 18 election, the regional “backyard” was set to become a renewed priority for Australia.

Attention now turns to small and micro nations, who suffer in varying degrees from the effects of remoteness, narrow economies, endemic poverty, poor infrastructure, and, most existentially, rising sea levels. These countries are eager for assistance in securing their futures, whether sourced from old friends like the US and Australia, or new enthusiasts like China.




Read more:
For Pacific Island nations, rising sea levels are a bigger security concern than rising Chinese influence


China’s influence continues to grow

Labor’s new deputy, Richard Marles, has long championed improved development aid and other assistance to Australia’s nearest neighbours, arguing it is Australia’s moral responsibility. That’s a given, but so is the strategic case for a renewed presence. Namely, the expanding diplomatic and strategic reach of Beijing.

Morrison is alive to it too.

China’s influence across the region – particularly as an infrastructure and project financier – is growing. This is seen in Canberra as a serious threat, with both major parties looking for ways to strengthen ties with Pacific nations that had been allowed to fray.

Darwin-based Labor MP Luke Gosling told me he would make the Northern Territory capital the official base for Australia’s renewed regional extension.

“Whether it is responding to earthquake, cyclone, tsunami, or terrorist attack – it should be the hub for humanitarian, emergency and disaster assistance to the region, but more importantly involved in capacity building with our regional neighbours,” he said.

Valid though this is, success will turn not so much on a change of arrangements internally, as a whole new basis to Australia’s regional pitch.




Read more:
If there’s one thing Pacific nations don’t need, it’s yet another infrastructure investment bank


Australia needs to listen first

Experts say the key to closer relations is talking to smaller countries about their concerns, rather than the tendency we’ve had to date to talk about ours.

For Morrison, that is a political challenge with distinct domestic characteristics. It means acknowledging the contemporaneous real-world effects of global warming, including the direct contribution to carbon emissions from mining and burning coal.

For low-lying island countries including Kiribati, with a population of just 110,000, and Fiji, this is no abstract debate but rather one of life and death, here and now.

“It’s their top security priority,” Michael Wesley, Dean of the College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University, told Sky News “whereas our top security priority in the Pacific is China”.

“Pacific leaders have made it very clear that they don’t see China in the Pacific as a threat, so we’ve got an immediate mismatch of what we perceive to be the problems between us and the Pacific Islanders.”

Wesley described global warming as an existential concern “happening to them right now”.

“We have to be extremely sensitive about how things like the Adani coal mine, [and] a new coal-fired power plant perhaps being opened, will play out in the Pacific, it goes down like a lead balloon.”

As with Mr Morrison’s visit to Honiara, the order of things matter when communicating internationally.




Read more:
Pacific nations aren’t cash-hungry, minister, they just want action on climate change


Taking climate change concerns seriously

Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama was among the first to congratulate Morrison on his surprise election win. The pair had struck up a warm relationship when they met earlier this year. But now, as then, the Fijian used the opportunity to seek stronger climate leadership from the region’s wealthiest economy.

His longer post on Facebook provided the kicker:

In Australia, you have defied all expectations; let us take the same underdog attitude that inspired your parliamentary victory to the global fight against climate change. By working closely together, we can turn the tides in this battle – the most urgent crisis facing not only the Pacific, but the world. Together, we can ensure that we are earthly stewards of Fiji, Australia, and the ocean that unites us. Together, we can pass down a planet that our children are proud to inherit.

It was a similar message from Samoa, where Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi welcomed the election result, but noted in an interview with The Guardian that “[Australia] has been lagging behind,” regarding the need for action on the climate emergency.

And it’s a fair bet the content will be the same in Honiara.

The finer points of diplomacy have not been a strength of Morrison, who, even after his recent electoral endorsement, is still less than a year in the top job.

A plainly cynical suggestion made during the Wentworth byelection of moving the Australian embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem caused nothing but embarrassment. More recent comments depicting the US as our friend and China as merely our client raised eyebrows in Beijing.

But a desire to succeed, a personable nature, and an avowedly conservative disposition, suggest the Australian prime minister does not envisage significant direction changes in Australia’s stance on either regional or global affairs. That is a reality likely to prove disappointing to Pacific Island leaders looking for a lot more than kind words as their citizens face inundation.The Conversation

Mark Kenny, Senior Fellow, Australian Studies Institute, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

As Australia’s soft power in the Pacific fades, China’s voice gets louder



File 20190220 148513 oqqk9j.png?ixlib=rb 1.1
China is broadcasting to more than 1 billion people in several different languages, while Australia sits on its soft power reviews.
Screenshot/YouTube

Helen Vatsikopoulos, University of Technology Sydney

This week, Department of Communications and Arts secretary Mike Mrdak told a Senate hearing our Pacific neighbours will soon experience “the full suite of programs available on Australian networks”. This means the region will see some of our most highly rated reality shows such as Married at First Sight and The Bachelor.

This is all part of the government’s Pacific pivot and the A$17 million package to broadcast commercial television throughout the region announced by the prime minister last year. It’s also part of Australia’s “soft power” strategy, a branding that enables it to influence other countries and have its voice heard.

Australia’s soft power attraction in the Asia Pacific has been in free fall for the past few years. The government is sitting on two major reviews. First is the Soft Power Review – a strong recommendation of the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper – for which the consultation period ended in October 2018. Second is the Review of Australian Broadcasting in the Asia-Pacific, the consultation period for which ended in August 2018.

The second review was established in 2017. This was the first time the government addressed the issue of soft power in the Pacific since axing the ABC’s Australia Network in 2014. The Australia Network broadcast to the region with redistribution partnerships to 30 countries.

The ABC charter states it has responsibility “to transmit to countries outside Australia broadcasting programs of news, current affairs, entertainment and cultural enrichment” that will “encourage awareness of Australia and an international understanding of Australian attitudes on world affairs”.

In other words, the ABC is already enabled as Australia’s soft power tool. Despite this, the government is giving money to commercial televisions to do the work. At the Senate hearing this week, Mrdak denied this was in breach of the ABC charter because it did not involve broadcasting but purchasing content made by Australia’s commercial broadcasters for distribution to regional broadcasters.




Read more:
Lost in transmission: the Australia Network, soft power and diplomacy


The government must move quickly with its reviews and their recommendations, and articulate its policy responses before the next election, if Australia’s standing in the region is to be restored. Because other powers, especially China, are fast filling the gap we’re leaving behind.

The importance of soft power

Soft power is a term coined by Harvard Professor Joseph S. Nye in the late 1980s. He referred to soft power as the ability of a country to gain influence and power through attraction and without coercion. Soft power leads to nation branding or the reputation a nation enjoys in the world.

This is what business academic Yin Fang defines as:

… the total sum of all perceptions of a nation in the minds of international stakeholders, which may contain some of the following elements: people, place, culture/language, history, food, fashion, famous faces (celebrities), global brands and so on.

The 2018 Soft Power 30 Report showed Australia had fallen four places in four years. The report is a measure of the influence of international nations. We are 10th in the overall soft power index but are marked as moving downward: 7th in culture, 6th in education, 9th in government and completely absent from the top ten in the areas of digital, enterprise and engagement.




Read more:
Soft power and the institutionalisation of influence


In the alternative, and hipper, Monocle Soft Power Index, Australia sits at number 8. But the report also warns it “… is in need of a shakeup if it is to remain an attractive proposition”.

It praises the country for committing to an official review of its soft power but adds “it’s unclear if that will now be a priority”.

In addressing a seminar on the future of Australia’s broadcasting and soft power in the region, veteran broadcaster and former head of the Australia Network Bruce Dover said:

Where once Australia was a brand in Asia, people knew what the Australia Network was, they knew what Radio Australia was, it’s lost – it’s gone…

He then added that the axing of the Australia Network by the Coalition government “… was for more political reasons about whacking the ABC than a considered view on the worth of soft diplomacy or having a voice in the region”.

The ABC isn’t entirely free from blame. It abandoned the most needy of its audience in Asia and the Pacific by switching off its shortwave radio service in 2017. Citing outdated technology, the ABC was trying to make the most of its severe funding cutbacks by prioritising digital services. And that’s when China moved in and took over the shortwave frequencies.

So, what’s China doing?

The government’s Pacific pivot is about waking up and finding China has expanded into the region, and not just in infrastructure projects but in broadcasting. A recent ABC investigation reported China’s Central Global Television Network (CGTN) is broadcasting to 1.2 billion people in Chinese, English, French, Spanish, Russian and Arabic and is expanding to create 200 international bureaus by 2020.




Read more:
Soft power goes hard: China’s economic interest in the Pacific comes with strings attached


This may be, as the ABC suggests, “informational warfare”, where the soldiers may actually be Westerners working for the other side. This year alone, more than 2,200 people lost their jobs in the Australian media.

Edwin Maher was one of the first Australians to work for CCTV, as CGTN was then called. He was a weatherman when I worked in the ABC’s Melbourne newsroom in the late ’80s, but for over a decade he has been a presenter on China’s television. There will be more like him in future.

China is actively recruiting Westerners to front its programs. Australian faces will likely present news on on CGTN, while Australian voices broadcast in English to Pacific Islanders on shortwave.

In the competitive world of nation-branding and soft power, who will know the difference? The new Edwin Mahers will be telling the same stories as Australia, but with a China focus. In 2016 President Xi Jinping announced that the media must serve the party and directed them to tell China’s stories that reflect well on the ruling party and its policies.

This is the reality of informational warfare. The Morrison government must release its two crucial soft power reports and announce a policy framework that will determine our standing, influence and power in the region.

Vanuatu’s Daily Post has welcomed the news Australia will provide entertaining programs to the Pacific. But the opinion piece also says:

Pacific islanders aren’t likely to be very fussy about how that comes about. But if the goal is helping Pacific islanders know more about Australia — and helping Australians know more about the Pacific – then a different approach is needed.

Australia’s soft power is too important to be determined by vengeful payback to the ABC, or by currying favour with commercial television barons. It is about statecraft.The Conversation

Helen Vatsikopoulos, Lecturer in Journalism, University of Technology Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.