|FACE OF CHINA: Some of the thousands of tourists visiting Fiji these days.pic MINFO|
|A new report on an old fear from Australia: the rising Chinese influence in the region and suggestions the US appears to doubt Australia can deliver on South Pacific issues.|
Our New Abroad, Australia and Pacific Islands Regionalism is written by the ubiquitous Richard Herr and Anthony Bergin, for the Australian Strategic Policies Institute.
Singing from a familiar colonial hymn, Herr and Bergin again urge Australia re-gather the threads of regional leadership and re-engage with Fiji, one of the Pacific nations providing a gateway for China to the region.
Here is the executive summary for the review. The full report is available at the link at the end of the story:
The Pacific islands region has been undergoing a substantial and dynamic change in its geopolitics, with profound consequences for Australia. The changing tectonics of the Asian century, the dramatic rise of China and a bitter intra-regional dispute with Fiji are amongst the most visible developments.
Although Australia is the largest donor in the region as well as its most influential political actor, these geopolitical shifts have raised serious questions about the contemporary effectiveness of our regional relationships.
The Pacific islands region is full of contradictions—vast, yet small; weak, yet influential; important, yet frequently ignored. Its geopolitical characteristics are so diverse that commonalties can be difficult to find. Nevertheless, for more than six decades, Australia has devoted considerable resources to creating and supporting a regional system to express the Pacific islands’ common interests.
Historically, the success of the regional approach can’t be questioned. Regional relationships contributed significantly to the Pacific islands’ peaceful transition to independence. Their collective action has been responsible for significant achievements in the postcolonial rough and tumble of resource diplomacy.
Australia isn’t a member of the Pacific islands region by virtue of its geographic boundaries, but the decision-making scope of the Pacific Islands Forum makes us the largest and most influential member of the regional family. This dichotomy has produced a ‘bifocal’ view of Pacific islands regionalism that was occasionally controversial but generally regarded as an important source of strength.
The intimacy that Australia enjoys through the regional system hasn’t been negotiated through treaties. It’s been built by friendship and maintained by mutual respect. Our regional ties provide the most important measure of the warmth of the overall relationship that Australia has with the Pacific islands.
Some critics have maintained that Australia’s privileged regional position has tended to be more that of an outsider, rather than an insider. Some of this criticism is due to changes in the way our neighbours have viewed their place in the world. Other criticisms are based on perceptions that Australian interests have altered.
Over the two decades since the end of the Cold War, the concept of political alignment has lost its cogency, diminishing the perceived security benefits of alignment both for the Pacific islands and for their Western supporters.
Greater exposure to non‑aligned interests, coupled with global changes outside the region, especially the rise of China as a global economic power, has offered the Islands new models for development as well as outlets for their national economies.
Island concerns over Australia’s bifocal regional perspectives stem in part from a perception that Australia is a key driver behind current integration processes. Critics have raised doubts about Australia’s motivation for seeking closer regional relations through the Pacific Plan and PACER Plus.1
Yet today regional security demands more effective collective action to meet the traditional and non-traditional security threats facing the Pacific islands. The regional system has been increasingly occupied with assisting the islands to meet the obligations of statehood, such as domestic stability, law and order, and the protection of state jurisdiction (especially after the declaration of exclusive economic zones).
The erosion in Australia’s standing in Pacific regional affairs can be seen in rising sub‑regionalism and faltering support for Australia’s lead on regional initiatives. The islands are displaying an increasingly independent fascination with Asia. They’re broadening unconventional diplomatic ties and preferring regional representation at the United Nations that excludes Australia.
Thus, the coherence and robustness of the regional system are being tested at a time when it is divided as never before, as regional organisations adapt to a new and diversified security environment.
The recent Pacific Islands Forum meeting in Auckland clearly demonstrated the value of the privileged position Australia enjoys in regional affairs. The US sought and secured observer status for its three territories, as France had done for its territories several years earlier, but neither is eligible for full membership in its own right.
Moreover, new interests rumoured to be seeking admission as Post-Forum Dialogue partners included Israel, Turkey, Germany, Russia, Cuba, Spain and the United Arab Emirates. Indeed, the numbers are so great that this arrangement will have to be more formalised to cope.
There can be no doubt that effective regional relationships remain an important soft power asset for Australia. The trust that has come with being an accepted member of the regional family contributes enormously to maintaining that asset.
The Australian Government’s recently announced ‘Asian Century’ white paper review should find, as this review has, that Asia–Pacific linkages can add value to Australia’s regional ties with the Pacific islands.
The new Asian interests in the islands pose significant challenges and even risks to the region. Our island neighbours are encouraging and extending these interests through their ‘look North’ policies. Cultivating these connections could ultimately advantage our own Asian ambitions.
Conversely, attempting to use Pacific regional agencies to curtail our neighbours’ emerging Asian ties would damage both our national interests and those of Western allies grappling with related developments, especially in the Western Pacific.
This report finds five areas where Australia can contribute to its own standing in the regional family while advancing regional security.
Traditional security concerns can be addressed by improving the institutional reach and capacity of the existing regional structures. More extra-regional interests—both traditional (France and the US) and new (China)—should be included.
Australia’s regional posture can be enhanced. Our privileged position in the Pacific islands regional structure needs to adjust to address recent changes. Engaging more closely with sub‑regional developments and repairing the regional relationship with Fiji are two of the highest priorities.
Non‑traditional threats to security are more significant in this region than anywhere else because of the extreme vulnerability of most regional states:
Economic development remains the primary non‑traditional source of threat to their stability and sovereignty. Amid increasing concerns about food and energy security, labour mobility and disaster recovery work are areas for development.
Heightened concerns about education and health are having a regional and sub‑regional impact on national development.
Finally, Australia needs to build a more effective national base for Pacific islands policy. The Pacific islands have slipped from Australian public consciousness in recent decades, reducing the personal base we need to understand our regional family.
|Our New Abroad, Australia and Pacific Islands Regionalism|