November 2019 Guest Speaker, Greg Fry, “Framing the Pacific”

Greg has worked for many years on the Pacific, and his book, Framing the Islands: Power and Diplomatic Agency in Pacific Regionalism, was published earlier in the year by ANU Press (free download here).

Greg asked us to consider our Australian perspective and why we always get things wrong in our relationship with the countries of the Pacific.

How can we do better? Not by thinking of us all as a family, as the prime minister Scott Morrison has done. Australia in this scenario would be the bad brother of the Pacific.

Australia’s deep assumptions about the people of the Pacific parallel the way we have thought about aboriginal people in this country. We don’t really see them; we don’t expect them to have agency over their own lives.

A second preconception is that Australia has a natural right to lead in the region. The Pacific is seen as “our” backyard. And a third: we’re leading in the Pacific in a sort of deputy sheriff role for the USA.

Source: Center for Pacific Islands Studies:

More assumptions:

– that Australia has a responsibility to “civilise” and develop the Pacific along neoliberal lines, following on from the activities of missionaries.

– that all the Pacific islands are the same. But consider: a quarter of the world’s languages are spoken here, 1,200 of them. Some of them are 50,000 years old.

Sometimes Australia sees itself as a part of the region, like now when we are “family”; but usually Australian policy makers can’t think in terms of “we”. Usually it’s “you” in the Pacific who have such and such a problem, who suffer from corruption etc.

All this is not liked in the Pacific. They recognise our deficiencies, though we certainly don’t. We can’t pronounce their names; we don’t bother teaching much about the Pacific in our schools. Now that Australia has been here for two hundred years we think we’re quite old! To Pacific Islanders, that’s not old.

In 1976 China came into the Pacific, competing with Taiwan. There have been massive changes in China’s strategic policy. Huge amounts of money were promised in the Pacific; roads, wharves, etc. have been built.

The rise of China now figures in the Pacific’s geopolitical context. We tend to think that every Pacific Islander country is about to go over to China, and get caught up in a Chinese “debt trap”. There were claims in the press that a Chinese base was coming to Vanuatu, though this has been denied.

Greg noted a comment from former Australian High Commissioner to the Solomon Islands, James Batley, on the media reaction to China’s recent investments in the Pacific: “I do think there’s a bit of hyperventilation going on.”

In fact there is no evidence yet of debt trap scenarios in the Pacific, such as what is seen in Sri Lanka. The debt ratios in some of these countries are not even as high as Australia’s. We assume that any large sum of money will corrupt the countries of the Pacific, though not us, of course. Tonga’s arrangement with China looked like such a case – but China waived that debt.

Australia took notice first with the Vanuatu scare in 2018. A Defence white paper in 2017 had contained what was mainly a security approach, to “step up” our presence in the Pacific. We sent patrol boats but less aid, which was instead channelled into security.

Now Australia is setting up a regional scheme outside the Pacific Islands Forum. We are planning a military base on Manus Island, jointly with the US, to watch the Chinese. In Fiji there is now the Black Rock facility. All in all, a big increase in military training and security-led policy.

The “China threat” has been the prompt for the US to make its “Pacific pledge”, millions of dollars of extra aid for the Pacific; New Zealand, Japan and the UK have followed this lead. They are all setting up embassies in the region to counter the China threat. It’s a new Cold War, and Australia sees itself at the head of it.

Pacific countries are seen as small, aid dependent, etc. But in fact they have had some amazing successes. At the United Nations 12 Pacific island countries work together as a bloc, independently of Australia and New Zealand, and they find it’s much better that way. Funnily enough, Australia and New Zealand are in the European group.

But Australia doesn’t yet realise that these countries are sovereign. Yes, they may be dependent; but they are not constrained by the fact. The Solomon Islands, for example, spoke out against Australia at the UN at the same time as the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) was in operation. We have missed noticing this kind of thing.

In the last eight years, the Pacific has come of age and become highly organised. They now have a very able and assertive group of leaders and the Pacific Islands Forum secretariat to coordinate for their interests.

Recently the US has pushed its Indo-Pacific policy, to bring the Indian Ocean and the Pacific into a containment strategy against China. The Pacific Forum has instituted instead a “Blue Pacific” strategy, focusing on ocean and fish management, seabed mining, climate change. Pacific Islanders are global leaders in these areas and have been very effective in promoting and defending their resources. Poachers for example are blacklisted; there is good fish mapping and conservation, and incomes have increased significantly as a result.

In April 2019 the Pacific Islands Forum was held in Tuvalu. Australian newspapers announced that we had protected our interests, such as a ban on coal mines that we managed to sidestep. But in fact the Australian government signed onto a document which committed to zero emissions by 2050. Morrison didn’t want to talk about this, describing the forum as “a good conversation with the family”. But talks insisted on trying to cap the global temperature increase at 1.5°, and the language was radical – not a climate emergency but more than that, a climate crisis. The 2019 PIF drafted the Kainaki II Declaration on the need for urgent climate action. Australia will be bypassed if it continues to drag its heels.