By Joanne Wallis
During his recent speech at the Solomon Islands National University, Minister for International Development and the Pacific Pat Conroy said “strategic competition […] is an unavoidable reality for our region”.
July has already seen Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare visit China, French President Emmanuel Macron visit Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and New Caledonia, and United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken visit Tonga (Australia and New Zealand).
This follows visits by an array of leaders and senior officials to the region over the past year. There have been several high-level dialogues, including the historic United States-Pacific Island Country Summit in September 2022.
Reflecting its proximity and historic role, Australia has been at the forefront of this competition. Since launching its “Pacific step-up” in 2018, it has committed billions of dollars (on top of being the largest donor), and instigated a raft of security, infrastructure and other activities.
But too often Australia’s initiatives have resembled whack-a-mole reactions to China’s activities. For example, the government funded Telstra to buy Digicel Pacific after China Mobile expressed interest. It also built the Coral Sea Cable after Huawei bid to lay it, and it re-developed the Black Rock Peacekeeping and Humanitarian & Disaster Relief Camp after China indicated interest. Australia’s Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific seeks to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative infrastructure lending, motivated by – disputed – claims about “debt-trap diplomacy”.
After a July visit to Solomon Islands, Defence Minister Richard Marles suggested that Australia is “very keen” to whack another mole: helping the Solomon Islands to establish a military.
This followed Sogavare signing a policing pact during his visit to China. That pact built on a bilateral security agreement signed in April 2022 that several Australian commentators interpreted as paving the way for a Chinese military base. However, the Solomon Islands government refutes this.
While it is the Solomon Islands government’s sovereign right to establish a military, questions over its likely benefit should give Australia pause. Law and order are best guaranteed by police, and ultimately, by addressing sociopolitical challenges. This includes uneven development and underdevelopment.
Solomon Islands does not share a land border (a justification for Papua New Guinea having a defence force), and its maritime territory is already protected by a police maritime unit aided by the Australia-backed Pacific Maritime Security Programme. While the logistical capabilities of defence forces are useful for humanitarian and disaster relief, given challenges of funding and scale, the most efficient way to provide it would be through developing a regional capability.
Australia may be concerned that China will otherwise step in. But even if Australia does help, it wouldn’t have the right to control a new Solomon Islands’ defence force. And while Australia provided substantial assistance to rebuild Solomon Islands’ police force during RAMSI, that hasn’t stopped China from developing its own relationship with that force, including through providing training and equipment.
There are also a few cautionary tales from elsewhere in the Pacific. The deployment of the Papua New Guinea Defence Force (PNGDF) during the Bougainville conflict exemplified how a military can be used against a domestic population. And coups in Fiji demonstrate how the military can unseat a government. Australia had established the PNGDF during its colonial administration and had provided decades of support to the Fijian military.
Australia has legitimate strategic interests in Solomon Islands and the Pacific more broadly. And it is right to be concerned about China’s activism. But it needs to think carefully about how it responds.
In fact, there are alternative ways for Australia to improve its regional relationships that are far less costly – and risky.
Australia makes it difficult for Pacific people to come to Australia. It hosts temporary Pacific workers under the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (PALM) scheme, as well as Pacific students, many of whom are funded by Australia Awards. But these programs often have culturally, economically, and legally exclusionary consequences.
The Labor government is attempting to improve the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (PALM) scheme and enhance the experience of Pacific Australia Award students. Its establishment of the Pacific Engagement Visa that will allocate 3,000 permanent migration places to Pacific peoples annually is welcome. But that scheme has been delayed, and questions about its implementation remain unanswered.
It is time for Australia to implement a visa-waiver program for citizens of Pacific countries. While citizens of certain wealthy countries can apply in advance for free visitor visas (and New Zealand citizens can apply for one on arrival), citizens from Pacific countries are only eligible for expensive visas, which require extensive paperwork.
After all, if Australia genuinely sees itself as part of the “Pacific family”, why do we throw open our door to Europeans and Americans, but not to Pacific people?
A visa-waiver program could also be the precursor to Pacific people being offered visa-free entry similar to what we offer New Zealanders. That would be a genuine act of family “care” and “love”. And something China can’t beat.
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