| Asia and the Pacific Policy Society | Edited extracts
PORT MORESBY – After working at senior levels in the Papua New Guinea government, sitting across the table from New Zealand and Australia in the tough work of diplomacy, I have seen how both countries engage.
I thought revealing a recent discussion on the Pacific Step-Up in a webcast hosted by the Australia Pacific Security College which featured Australia’s Pacific minister, Zed Seselja, and New Zealand’s high commissioner to Australia, Dame Annette King.
Neither minister signalled any significant paradigm shift in the way their countries approach regional needs concerning climate change and environmental challenges, or change in how they intend to deliver their development assistance in the region.
In other words, I did not see a Pacific ‘step-up’ or a ‘reset’, just business as usual.
My assessment may be a tough one to swallow in Canberra and Wellington, and it is made with due acknowledgement of enhanced effort.
New Zealand and Australia’s commitment both to deliver Covid-19 vaccines to the Pacific and provide economic relief is to be commended.
It has been a massive humanitarian undertaking, one for which the Pacific family is grateful and appreciative. But is it a genuine change?
A surging humanitarian response is consistent with the past practice of both countries, but previous surges haven’t stopped attention from being drawn elsewhere once the crisis passed.
Climate continues to be the sticking point for Australia.
Minister Seselja clearly considers that Australia has a strong case to make on its climate efforts. He explained how Australia is funding climate adaptation in the Pacific. However, things get murkier with climate change mitigation.
According to minister Seselja, Australia has reduced its emissions by about 20%, which he claims is far better than most developed countries.
Of course, other assessments of Australia’s efforts have been far less positive.
Australia may consider it has a case to make but, if so, it isn’t cutting through with Pacific partners.
With the 2021 United Nations climate change conference fast approaching, Australia needs to be clear and open about its mitigation efforts to address this existential threat.
Pacific island states have made mitigation a top priority in both the 2018 Boe Declaration on Regional Security and the 2019 Kainaki II Declaration for Urgent Climate Change Action Now.
In addition, I thought opportunities to convince us of a real reset in policy were missed by the New Zealand High Commissioner when discussing how the Pacific might be brought into the conversation around the Indo-Pacific regional narrative.
Dame Annette said New Zealand’s priority was to include Pacific voices in regional rule-setting and, in passing, flagged the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.
This struck me as an odd, as APEC excludes Pacific states with the exception of Papua New Guinea.
Perhaps New Zealand intends to broker greater cooperation between APEC and the Pacific Islands Forum to draw our region into the debate on rules for the Indo-Pacific. If so, it would be a welcome step forward.
The Minister and High Commissioner managed to answer many challenging and difficult questions but side-stepped others.
Regrettably, the Australian minister skirted questions on support for the Pacific Island Forum’s Pacific resilience facility and the Lowy Institute’s proposed Pacific financing recovery facility. The High Commissioner was also silent on these proposals.
The absence of a response suggests there is little appetite in Canberra and Wellington for innovative Pacific-led proposals to the developmental challenges of Covid-19 and the worsening climate.
I would like to emphasise the tendency for Australia to react to what China does in the region, particularly when it comes to infrastructure.
Imagine how different it would be if Australia took initiatives and let China react in whatever way it felt necessary. The narrative and optics would be controlled by Australia.
Minister Seselja and Dame Annette should be commended for their openness and willingness to push the Pacific security conversation forward. The Pacific got some insight into Australia and New Zealand’s thinking on security risks and their potential response.
However, when considered in the light of Australia and New Zealand’s long engagement in the region, it appears to be business as usual rather than transformative change.
Leonard Louma is former Secretary of Papua New Guinea’s Department of Foreign Affairs and now runs his own consulting firm