Jonathan Pryke, Australian National UniversityFor most of the last year, the Pacific Islands have been remarkably isolated from the devastating effects of the COVID crisis. By walling themselves off early from the outside world, most Pacific nations remain completely COVID free.
Historians will look back on this as a remarkable achievement by Pacific nations, and a great credit to the swift actions taken by their leaders.
While isolation has proven itself to be an effective preventative strategy, it is not a perfect one. Border closures have taken an severe toll on these nations’ fledgling economies.
And even the most robust border and quarantine control systems can break down. In the Pacific, the cracks are now starting to show.
Localised outbreaks and lockdowns
With a porous land border with Indonesia and weak quarantine controls, it’s remarkable the virus did not get out of control sooner. However, it is now running unchecked in the capital, Port Moresby, and has spread to every province in the country.
The health system came very close to complete breakdown in March, and despite hopeful signs of case numbers stabilising in the capital (now at a much higher level), the country remains in dire need of further assistance.
Fiji was the most successful nation in the region in containing community transmission a year ago. It, too, is now showing cracks in the armour.
In a familiar story, a soldier working at a quarantine facility caught the virus from a traveller who had recently returned from India. Now identified as the new and extremely infectious Indian strain, it has quickly spread.
Much of the country’s main island of Viti Levu is in lockdown as contact tracing is conducted. While Fiji is the most capable country in the region to handle an outbreak, it also comes at a terrible time for the tourism-dependent nation, which is desperate to reopen to the Australian and New Zealand markets.
Over in Vanuatu, the dead body of a Filipino sailor from a visiting cargo vessel that washed ashore on April 11 tested positive for the virus. The vessel is now in Australian waters, with all but one of the 12 sailors on board testing positive for COVID-19.
Getting vaccines is step one
The solution to the Pacific’s imperfect isolation strategy is the same as Australia’s – vaccines.
Given the enormous global demand for vaccines, and the small size and limited bargaining power of Pacific Island nations, there has been a very real threat they would be left at the back of the queue in the vaccine scramble.
However, assertive work by donor nations like Australia and New Zealand, combined with access to the World Health Organisation-led global COVAX facility, has so far meant Pacific nations are not being left out in the cold.
The North Pacific nations of Federated States of Micronesia, Marshall Islands, and Palau are well on their way to being fully vaccinated courtesy of the United States’ Operation Warp Speed program.
Initial batches of between 4,800-132,000 doses of AstraZeneca vaccines have also been delivered to Fiji, Nauru, PNG, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga and Tuvalu via the COVAX initiative.
Australia sent an emergency batch of 8,000 vaccine doses to PNG in March, and is now sending 10,000 locally produced AstraZeneca doses to the region each week. This number is likely to climb as production ramps up and the appetite for AstraZeneca wanes at home.
Both PNG and the Solomon Islands are adamant that they will not roll out the vaccine until it receives approval by the WHO, but the presence of Chinese vaccines ups the stakes for the vaccine diplomacy battle now underway in the Pacific.
Logistics are now the big challenge
Just two months ago, the worry for most Pacific nations was getting hold of vaccines. For many, the challenge has now quickly morphed to a larger, and much more challenging, question — how to roll them out.
There are enormous challenges involved with an effective rollout campaign in many countries, especially those with many islands like Kiribati or Solomon Islands or with large populations in remote communities spread across mountains and islands, like PNG.
Pacific leaders and health professionals also face widespread misinformation about vaccines, cultural stigma (many Pacific nations have never run an adult vaccination campaign), and logistical challenges related to cold chain storage and their already-stretched health systems.
Illustrating this point, of the 8,000 doses Australia provided to PNG more than a month ago, only 2,900 have been administered. While some nations, like Fiji, have quickly run through their allotted COVAX vaccines, others, such as PNG, run the risk of vaccines expiring before they get into people’s arms.
It will take a much more significant and coordinated effort from Pacific nations, and all of their donor counterparts, to effectively vaccinate the region.
A massive logistics campaign tailored to the needs of each nation must now get underway. NGOs, churches, and the private sector should all be expected to do their part. Alongside this, the Pacific nations need smart and widespread information campaigns to promote the efficacy and importance of the vaccines and help overcome misinformation and stigma.
If more concerted effort is not applied to getting needles into Pacific Islanders’ arms, then at best these countries will be left behind as other economies open up to one another, and at worst quarantine systems will fail and the virus itself will overwhelm their vulnerable systems.
The Pacific region has done extremely well in combating the COVID crisis to date. Let’s not stop now.
News of successful COVID-19 vaccine trials has raised hopes in the Pacific that the hard-hit tourism industry will begin to re-open in 2021.
Even before the vaccine announcements, there was excitement in the Cook Islands over a recent New Zealand government delegation to survey the country’s borders and discuss a potential travel bubble.
Cook Islands Private Sector Taskforce chairperson Fletcher Melvin spoke for many when he said:
The New Zealand officials are here, and that has been the biggest breakthrough for many, many months. We are hopeful they will get here and see we are prepared and confirm that we are COVID-free and we are ready to welcome Kiwis back to our shores.
At the same time, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern dampened hopes of a trans-Tasman bubble before Christmas due to different tolerances for community transmission in New Zealand and Australia.
Beyond the ongoing uncertainty, though, the possibility of a Cook Islands-New Zealand bubble raises further questions about how Pacific tourism can and should be revived in general.
Culture and commerce
Our research examines these questions and provides interesting insights into how Pacific peoples are re-imagining the place of tourism in their lives.
The global pandemic has effectively closed Pacific state borders to international tourists for eight months. With thousands of jobs gone and economies undermined, many people in Fiji, Vanuatu, Samoa, Cook Islands and beyond have had to make huge adjustments.
In many cases, they have adapted to the lack of tourism income by drawing on their natural, cultural and spiritual resources. From this we can appreciate the strengths of Pacific cultures and how they might adapt to future uncertainties, including those associated with climate change.
Those affected by the pandemic now report wanting more time for family (including caring for the vulnerable), planting food and fishing, sharing surplus harvests, attending to cultural and religious obligations, relearning traditional skills and strengthening food systems.
Old ways should change
The crisis, while difficult, has allowed people to consider a more regenerative approach to tourism based on well-being and better work-life balance. As one Fijian elder put it:
Tourism must complement our way of life, rather than taking over.
The “old” tourism model is now seen by some as compromising their family’s well-being. Working long hours while commuting daily from a village to a hotel, or spending six weeks away from home at an island resort before getting one week off, is not ideal for parents of young children.
Many are on casual contracts and earn just above the minimum wage: FJ$2.68 (NZ$1.84) per hour in Fiji and NZ$7.60 per hour in Cook Islands.
Most tourism employees want tourism to return, but they hope for better terms, wages and working conditions. While a few called for caps on numbers in heavily touristed areas, others urged governments to open up new locations and promote off-season tourism.
People would also like to see greater local ownership and control of tourism enterprises, including joint ventures, building on existing strengths such as cultural or tropical garden tours and agri-tourism.
Life beyond tourism
Despite 73% of those surveyed living in households that experienced a major decline in income due to COVID-19, 38% were unsure about staying in tourism, or would prefer to find jobs in other areas.
Those interviewed sought more opportunities to pursue higher education, training in IT and trades, and wanted greater government support for creative industries.
This need for economic diversification is acknowledged across the Pacific region. But there has been little progress or policy development by governments to diversify economies in meaningful ways during the pandemic.
Perhaps understandably, given the severe economic pressures, many governments have focused on returning to the way things were. Fiji has enthusiastically urged tourists to return, opening “blue lanes” for yachties and a “bula bubble” for wealthy travellers.
Towards a new model
In this context the pandemic is being seen as an interruption, albeit welcome in some ways, to business as usual. As one Cook Islands elder expressed it:
This time to me is about restoring and renewing things, relationships, and giving our environment time to restore and breathe again before it gets busy, because I’m optimistic we will come out of this. People want to travel.
However, the pandemic should also provide an opportunity for Pacific countries to reset and chart a new way forward. When travel bubbles do open, they should do so in a way that benefits Pacific peoples, complements their way of life, and builds resilience in the process.
If and when Pacific travel is allowed again, the clear calls for culture and well-being to play a more central role in the lives of communities must be heard. One woman, a former resort employee in Fiji, put it well:
This break has given us a new breath of life. We have since analysed and pondered on what are the most important things in life apart from money. We have strengthened our relationships with friends and family, worked together, laughed and enjoyed each other’s company. We have strengthened our spiritual life and have never felt better after moving back to the village.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.