Monday, June 5, 2023

Australia should not exaggerate China’s threat in the Pacific and build relations in the region

The signing of a security agreement between the Solomon Islands and China in April 2022 brought geopolitical competition and militarization in the Pacific to the forefront of public discussion.

Australian politicians and the public are concerned about the possibility of a Chinese military base in the Pacific. They harbor more serious fears that China’s influence is becoming increasingly harsh and destructive.

In a time of intensifying geostrategic competition, Australia may feel the need to take a short-term and transactional approach to the Pacific. Such crisis thinking would be unnecessary and counterproductive.

Australia must build its relationship with the Pacific in terms of a long-term partnership of generations. It must respond to the Pacific region’s development priorities with a clear vision of a shared long-term future.

The Pacific Ocean will always be of great strategic importance to Australia. Peace and stability in the Pacific island countries are at the core of Australia’s security, prosperity and national interests.

This means that Australia’s interest in and attention to the region must remain clear, coherent and consistent, whether there are crises or not. Australia’s genuine, consistent engagement must address the unique needs of each Pacific island nation through both bilateral and regional Pacific initiatives.

More: As Wong leaves his mark in the Pacific, the Albanian government should turn to history to improve relations with China.

There is a danger that attention to China may take precedence over other priorities. This would undermine confidence and result in Australia’s diplomatic intentions not always being well received. If Australia puts its own institutional requirements and decisions ahead of local agencies and decisions, this may contribute to a negative perception of Australia’s intentions.

Foreign Secretary Penny Wong has spent a lot of time in the Pacific since Labor took office.
AAP/ Associated Press/Ministry of Foreign Affairs

When Pacific leaders look at regional security, they have an expanded view that includes climate change, human security, gender equality, environmental and resource security, transnational crime, and cybersecurity. This reflects insecurity in the Pacific on several levels:

  • globally, since the warming of the planet poses environmental and civilizational threats
  • regionally as players and attitudes change
  • at the national level as countries respond to the impact of COVID-19, natural disasters, illegal fishing, transnational crime and other threats exacerbated by gender inequality
  • at the local level, where community leaders and security forces are trying to control violence and conflict in several countries. In some areas, law enforcement problems and the proliferation of firearms mean that the risks to personal safety and tribal and political violence are extremely real.

These common challenges and mutual threats require long-term attention from Australia and the Pacific Islands. We need not only to verbally express each other’s security concerns, but also to develop a common security structure that responds to the full range of challenges to peace and security in the Pacific region. This requires deepening relationships and ensuring that shared concerns are not lost along the way.

The good news is that the Australian-Pacific cooperation has a solid foundation to work from. Australia has security cooperation agreements with most of the Pacific island nations. These include police-to-police cooperation, defense capacity building and joint military exercises.

Read more: Increasing ‘China threat’ narratives in the Pacific could help China achieve its broader goals

There are development programs to address factors of instability such as inequality and inclusive economic growth. Collaborations have been established in the areas of climate science, sustainable fisheries and the preservation of maritime boundaries in the face of rising sea levels. Australia has goodwill in the region to lean on.

There is a risk that Australia’s fears of geopolitical change will exaggerate disagreements with Pacific island countries. There will always be areas where views and interests coincide and others where they do not.

Australia needs to view the Pacific island countries as a network of interaction, trade, exchange, communication and influence that spans much of the Pacific. Strong relationships are not only made up of defense and security ties and do not come into play only in situations of threat. They are the result of long-term, consistent and multifaceted engagement, genuine partnership and respect for countries that are equally sovereign, and an exchange that seriously takes into account the priorities, interests and values ​​of all parties.

There is scope for a rhetorical reset portraying Australia as a generational partner for Pacific societies. Faced with a challenge to its profile and influence, Australia must take a long-term approach. The focus must be on economic integration, reciprocity and a sustained commitment to intergenerational progress.

Australians must accept that the Pacific island nations will engage with other countries and work to bridge the gaps in our defense, development and diplomatic relations with the region.

World Nation News Desk
World Nation News Desk
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