Australia has neglected its relationship with the Pacific – but that can change

Australia’s responsibility to the Pacific is unique – besides our historical ties with the UK, it is the only relationship specifically mentioned in the constitution. And for 10 of the more than dozen island nations in the region, unquestionably their most important bilateral relationship is with our country. Two things we often forget.

But for the last half decade or so there have been three very clear signs of a distinct step back in terms of Australia’s engagement with the Pacific – all of which has materially changed the way we are viewed in the region we call home.

Firstly, and perhaps where most attention is often singularly focused, there has been an overall reduction in Australia’s international aid. Even though this has been concentrated back in the Pacific under the Coalition Government – and at $1.1bn annually we are still the largest donor – the narrative has been negative. Nothing lingers more in the minds of the Pacific than projects that were slated to happen and never have as a result of this reduction, no matter how much other activity there has been.

Secondly, there has been a visible lack of prime ministerial attention on the region. Bob Hawke, Paul Keating, John Howard and Kevin Rudd all visited the Pacific on their first trips overseas as prime minister. In contrast, Julia Gillard waited until her third year in office, and Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull until their second – with Abbott causing great upset after he and Peter Dutton shared a joke about rising sea levels.

Strangely, the reverse has also not been encouraged. Only two Pacific leaders have been invited for official visits to Australia since 2013, despite a number of unofficial engagements and a constant stream of transiting Pacific politicians through the airports of Sydney, Brisbane and Cairns. Symbolism matters in diplomacy, and protocol matters in the Pacific, and this will not have gone unnoticed.

Thankfully the trend at foreign ministerial level has been more consistent. Julie Bishop has been to the region an extraordinary 30 times, Bob Carr visited in his first month, Stephen Smith on his first trip, Alexander Downer used to conduct an annual pre-Christmas swing, and Gareth Evans’ first trip was entirely dedicated to the Pacific.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, there has been an increasing schism between the extent to which Australia says it will be represent Pacific interests on the world stage, and the extent to which we have. This was perhaps best evident during Australia’s campaign for a seat on the Security Council when we promised to be a voice for the Pacific (whose votes are really important in these contests), but then did very little that stood out as much. However, it is our position on climate change that is perhaps the most telling example – though there are many other instances where we have been at odds with the Pacific, including on the new Nuclear Ban Treaty.

The fact that all this has occurred at the same time as the bedrock of our people-to-people ties have also been hollowed out as cheaper airfares mean more Australians now holiday in Asia rather than the Pacific, has also not helped.

While none of this individually has been enough to shake us from our usual perch of being many in the Pacific’s most favoured friend, it has been enough for the Pacific to begin to seriously – and quite rightly – begin to cast their gaze much wider. Even if it does help illustrate the point, the nature of Vanuatu’s discussions with China, and how we would rationally handle such a scenario after the hysteria of the last week is irrelevant here – there is a broader current at play.

Indeed, with referendums set to take place shortly in Bougainville and New Caledonia, and the Cook Islands pushing for a seat at the United Nations, the Pacific is one of the most dynamic regions in the world, and the race for the Pacific is very much on. In the last few years, Xi Jingping and Narendra Modi have both visited the region, Emmanuel Macron will do so next month, and in November the leaders of APEC – including Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Justin Trudeau – will all descend on Port Moresby. Just this week the United Kingdom also announced it would ramp up its presence in the region post-Brexit.

If Australia is to remain a genuine and strong member of the Pacific family – for our own benefit as much as theirs – then reversing these trends would be a good place to start. But these days, this can only be a start. And we will need to be quick.

Ultimately, we need to embrace our place in the Pacific in a way we never have before. We need to be more welcoming and let more Pacific Islanders call Australia home if they so choose, boost our people-to-people ties through greater political and educational exchanges and encourage more Australians to spend time in the region, change our curriculums to teach about the Pacific, and seriously ramp up our military cooperation beyond disaster recovery efforts. Perhaps every Australian diplomat should have to first do a posting in the Pacific before going off to the wider world. Some countries have a similar approach with their neighbours or key bilateral partners, and Port Moresby is, after all, home to one of our biggest embassies already. This would all help materially shift our own understanding and engagement with the region – and in time, our place.

But – to use a quintessentially Australian term – “it’s the vibe” that really matters. The Pacific know when Australia’s engagement is genuine, sustained and on an even footing, and when it is not. And when the Pacific feels we do not prioritise the region for our benefit as much as theirs, we cannot expect the Pacific to continue to prioritise us. We need to embrace our place in the Pacific, not ignore it.