Framing the Islands: denial and integration

‘The stability and economic progress of Papua New Guinea, other Pacific island countries and Timor-Leste is of fundamental importance to Australia.’
Australian foreign policy white paper, 2017

By Graeme Dobell*

Australia’s deepest, oldest instinct in the South Pacific is strategic denial, striving to exclude other major powers from the region.

As Australia can never achieve complete dominance in the South Pacific, the instinct is beset by a faint, constant ache. Throughout the 20th century, that ache was directed variously at France, Germany and Russia. The ache became a fevered nightmare during the war with Japan.

Today, Australia sees its interests and influence in the South Pacific directly challenged by China.

The challenge rouses the same strategic denial impulse that fostered federation and was expressed in the Commonwealth of Australia’s founding document. Our constitution has one clause stating the parliament’s power over external affairs, while the next clause specifically expresses the denial impulse, identifying authority over the ‘relations of the Commonwealth with the islands of the Pacific’.

As Greg Fry observes in his new book on power and diplomacy in Pacific regionalism, Framing the islands, the Oz hegemonic agenda has a long history. He quotes a 19th-century observation from Otto von Bismarck about the ‘Australasian Monroe doctrine’.

The same sphere-of-influence intent prevails today, Fry writes, as Canberra asserts its leadership and management role: ‘Australia’s preferred regional order is one in which it is the leading external security partner to Pacific island states and the undue influence of other metropolitan powers, particularly China, has been denied.’

Australia and New Zealand, he notes, have had ‘enormous influence on Pacific regionalism—on its finances, agenda, policy directions and institutional development’.

Yet, Australia is the frustrated, edgy hegemon; the problem for Oz leadership is generating enough island followership. As Fry puts it, ‘Power as capacity has not easily translated into power as legitimate influence.’ So Australia’s influence in the islands is at times limited, and may be declining.

Australia’s habits and interests bump up against ‘the “new” Pacific diplomacy’, Fry says, as island leaders project an assertive regional identity and seek to act as ‘a diplomatic bloc promoting a Pacific voice in global arenas’.

Climate change has given Pacific diplomacy a heightened urgency and unity, raising doubts about Australia’s regional membership, much less leadership:

In many ways, climate change has become the Pacific’s nuclear testing issue of the twenty-first century; it has brought an urgency and emotional commitment to regional collaboration. Where the Pacific states might in the past have tolerated some frustration with the domination of the regional agenda by Canberra and Wellington to pursue the war on terror or to promote a regional neoliberal economic order, this tolerance reached its limit in relation to the climate change issue.

The islands have acted to ‘securitise the climate emergency’ by expanding the concept of security, declaring climate change ‘the single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and wellbeing of the peoples of the Pacific’.

Fry says the islands have resisted what he calls ‘coercive’ European-style integration. Since the end of the Cold War, he writes, Australia has been the chief exponent of coercive integration, using the Pacific Islands Forum to push for regional norms to govern island development and governance.

A notable element of Australia’s 2017 foreign policy white paper was its embrace of integration as a key objective: ‘This new approach recognises that more ambitious engagement by Australia, including helping to integrate Pacific countries into the Australian and New Zealand economies and our security institutions, is essential to the long-term stability and economic prospects of the Pacific.’

Integration is a fine example of the problem of winning followership. Indeed, integration has become the i-word—the Oz policy that can’t be named.

The i-word got an embrace from the secretary-general of the Pacific Islands Forum, Dame Meg Taylor, when she launched Fry’s book:

[C]ontrary to Greg, I don’t think we should be dismissive of opportunities for regional integration in the Pacific, whether they be economic, political or based on something else. I would argue that the Rarotonga Treaty can be considered as an example of regional integration through which national sovereignty has been transcended [by] delineating a shared ocean space that is subjected to regulatory actions. Therefore, to dismiss ‘coercive integration’ from the beginning as irrelevant to the region would seem to go against the dynamic and contingent approach to regionalism that is the strength of Greg’s conceptual framework.

Canberra shouldn’t read too much into Taylor’s endorsement of the possibilities of integration. In my short conversation with her after the launch, she was emphatic that her words implied no embrace of Australia’s integration agenda.

In her Griffith lecture in Brisbane last month, Taylor offered three examples of the ‘political strength of the collective’, to show what regional resolve and solidarity look like:

  • the Rarotonga Treaty, which establishes a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Pacific and was adopted by Pacific leaders in August 1985
  • the Biketawa Declaration, adopted by leaders in 2000, which provided the framework for the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands, or RAMSI
  • the Pacific’s ‘instrumental role in concluding what was perhaps the toughest global negotiation ever—the Paris Agreement’.

Australia was central to the nuclear-free zone and RAMSI; the Paris climate negotiations are a different story.

As an example of how Oz strategic instincts can be embraced and used by the islands, Taylor points to Australia’s establishment this year of the Pacific Fusion Centre, bringing together information from across the region on security threats such as illegal fishing, people smuggling and narcotics trafficking.

Taylor says the centre is ‘region-led and owned’, aligning a regional priority with ‘the aim of Australia’s national foreign policy for stronger security integration across the region’.

Australia’s effort to assert its interests, influence and values in the South Pacific must embrace that ‘region-led and owned’ mantra. The region, too, must adapt and accommodate as it seeks to come together again as a ‘sea of islands’—large ocean states that are connected, not isolated and alone.

The islands coming together is about identity, but also the forms and forces of cooperation that can reach towards regional integration. How best can the islands serve the human security needs of their people? Sovereignty and security are based on strength, not weakness; Australia and New Zealand should be natural sources of help in building that strength.

Australia is often criticised as swinging between being in and out of the South Pacific. Accepting a region-led version of the Pacific future will minimise the attention swings, bolstering Australia’s fundamental interests in the stability and economic progress of the arc that runs from Timor-Leste through Papua New Guinea into the islands.

Fry argues that Pacific regionalism is more than an arena for governance, but constitutes a ‘regional political community—a term that connotes a deep level of commitment, affiliation and identity beyond the nation-state’.

The instincts of Australia’s history can embrace that idea of region.

*Graeme Dobell is ASPI’s journalist fellow. 

First published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute

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