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By Peter Hartcher
To most Australians, the South Pacific looks like a holiday opportunity or a blank space on the map. It takes a crisis for Australia to pay serious attention to the Pacific islands.
Like when the Japanese occupied several to prepare for the full-scale invasion of Australia in World War II.
Or when the Solomon Islands became a failed state and turned to Australia in desperation in 2003, leading to the 14-year, multibillion-dollar RAMSI mission. Or when civil war broke out on Bougainville and Australia and New Zealand were asked to oversee the peace process from 1997.
All these crises ended well and Australia's performance ultimately was outstanding in each case. But in each case, Australia was complacent or distracted until events forced it to act. Some vigilance would have reduced the cost and consequences.
So it's time for Australia to pay serious attention. Crisis has again broken out in the Pacific islands, and this is one that directly threatens Australia's future.
Because while most Australians see the region's main value as a holiday destination, the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party sees Australia taking a holiday from history.
To China's President, Xi Jinping, that is an opportunity to establish dominance in the Pacific as part of the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”. Beijing is using aid, infrastructure and other inducements to build influence over the small, poor nations that make up the region.
Just as China has been setting up naval bases in Africa and along the edge of the Indian Ocean, it's a matter of time before it does the same in the Pacific. It's interested in building ports in Papua New Guinea, for instance, which could be used by its military. And there were rumours this year of Chinese interest in building a military facility in the Pacific island state of Vanuatu.
"It's been an unspoken objective of Australian defence and foreign policy for 70 years to ensure that no other power could project force against Australia from the South Pacific," says the head of the Australian National University's National Security College, Rory Medcalf, ever since the Japanese were driven out in World War II.
If China were to build a military base among the Pacific islands, it would be a "pretty significant failure" of that policy, he points out. The People's Liberation Army would be in a position to threaten and coerce Australia.
“It is essential to the welfare of the whole country," wrote the American naval strategist, Alfred Thayer Mahan, that "the enemy must be kept not only out of our ports, but far away from our coasts.” This is as sensible today as it was when he wrote it in 1890.
Is China the enemy? It's the major trading partner of Australia and another 120 of the countries in the world, but it's also a strategic competitor of the United States and its allies. We know it's determined to build power. We know it's willing to walk over international law to do so, as it did in the South China Sea. And we know it's willing to use its power to coerce other countries.
We don't know its ultimate objectives and it's possible that Beijing itself isn't yet sure. So are we feeling lucky about what the next decade, the next century, might bring?
The Turnbull government and now the Morrison government are alert to the danger but the response has been inadequate to the challenge.
For instance, when Scott Morrison assumed the prime ministership he decided to cancel Malcolm Turnbull's plan to go to the annual meeting for Pacific leaders, the Pacific Islands Forum.
You can understand why he made the decision; he was busy setting up a new government. In ordinary times this wouldn't have been a big deal. These, however, are not ordinary times. It was a sign that Australia isn't really interested or serious.
The Coalition's former minister for the Pacific, Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, had been outspoken about the dangers of China's loans to Pacific countries, funding "useless buildings" as an exercise in debt-trap diplomacy.
And this week she wrote an opinion piece in The Australian: "It is time we had a clear-cut China strategy that confronted the realities of the growing threats in our region."
And while you won't find Labor disagreeing, the opposition would take a very different approach. “I think China is acting in a way that's entirely expected,” says Labor's defence spokesperson, Richard Marles. “And I don't think we have any right to ask the countries of the Pacific to not accept help if it's offered,” he tells me. “We don't have exclusive rights to the affections of the Pacific islands."
Rather than Australia arraying itself against China, Labor wants to mobilise in favour of the Pacific: "The fundamental step we need to take, and have needed to take for a long time, is to care about the Pacific."
If Australia bases its policy on blocking China straight-out, Australia loses, he says. For a couple of reasons. One, because "we'll be getting it wrong in the eyes of the people of the Pacific because they will know it's about someone else" - the Chinese - "and it's not about them."
On current trends, the Pacific will be the most deprived region on earth. As Marles notes, a UN Millennium Development Goals update in 2015 showed that “Africa will overtake the Pacific. This is a call to action. Business as usual is the 10 million people of the Pacific becoming the least developed in the world. That's the reality we need to change. That should be our guide and the centre of what we do”
Two, because if Australia engages in a contest of raw power against China, Australia loses. Whatever Australia does, China can do more - spend more money, deploy more ships, send more aid, build more infrastructure.
Marles spent some time this week talking to senior US regional military commanders during the Australian American Leadership Dialogue's annual session in Honolulu, home to US Indo-Pacific Command, formerly known as Pacific Command.
“In all my discussions with the Americans, this is an area where they expect us to lead. And they're keen to follow our lead. And there's bemusement in the US that we've not been ready to lead.”
Marles, a senior member of Labor's Victorian Right faction, a close friend of Bill Shorten and one of the real grown-ups in the Parliament, was responsible for Pacific policy when Labor was last in power. He's been thinking about this for a long time. So what would Labor do, exactly, that the government isn't already doing?
To start with, a Labor government would establish credibility on climate change. “Climate change is such an existential threat to the Pacific, especially Kiribati, Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands, that unless you have a credible climate change policy, you don't have an entry ticket to the Pacific.”
He recalls standing in the kitchen of a house in Kiribati with then UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon in 2012. “We watched the high tide literally wash in the front door of the house.”
Marles took part in traditional welcome ceremonies with the people of Kiribati, sitting in a communal meeting place, passing a coconut from one person to the next, sharing a drink of coconut milk. Except, as he learned, it wasn't traditional.
The tradition was to share a drink of water from a communal well. Rising sea levels had contaminated the fresh water underground. The coconut is a recent adaptation. "This was a centuries-old ceremony. It's profound. Unless you are there, you can't see it and comprehend it."
So Labor would offer a more credible climate change policy, says Marles. And, with some of the Coalition urging that Australia dump its modest carbon emissions commitments under the Paris accord in favour of Trumpist denialism, it's not hard for Labor to do better.
Second, says Marles, Australia should help the Pacific countries tell their story to the world and offer concrete help in adapting to rising sea levels.
What about the question of providing a home to climate refugees whose countries are disappearing? “I don't think that's a conversation that's on the agenda in the Pacific right now. The conversations I've had are about making their homes viable.”
Australia can offer other measures, too, he says, to improve income and living standards. Such as enlarging the system of seasonal workers' visas where Pacific islanders pick fruit in Australia and take their earnings home. Scott Morrison signalled this week that he, too, might be open to expanding this successful program.
“There are 10 countries in the world that look to Australia as their most important bilateral partner - not to America, not to China, but to Australia,” Marles says. “What the Pacific islanders seek is a country that will be their natural partner of choice to stand with them. We are responsible for this part of the world.”
He lists the 10 - New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Kiribati, Nauru, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa. And he points out the little-known fact that Australia's founders saw a particular role for the new country to deal with the Pacific islands - Australia's constitution gives the federal Parliament power over foreign relations, and then, in a separate head of power, power over relations with the Pacific.
His logic is that if Australia establishes itself as a reliable partner of choice, it will maximise its influence in the Pacific and, as a happy byproduct, limit China's opportunities. But, for Labor, the crisis has to wait a while. First it has an election to win.
Peter Hartcher is the political editor and international editor of The Sydney Morning Herald. He is a Gold Walkley award winner, a former foreign correspondent in Tokyo and Washington, and a visiting fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy.
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