Australia is alone in the south-west Pacific
20 April 2022
| Academia Nomad
PORT MORESBY - Despite visits past and planned to Honiara by Australian ministers and United States officials, Solomon Islands went ahead to sign a security deal with China.
Details remain sketchy, but a leaked draft says it will allow Chinese security forces to assist Solomons security forces when needed, including protecting Chinese businesses.
Australia had sought the Papua New Guinea and Fiji governments’ assistance to prevent the deal, but it appears both Pacific Island countries didn’t offer much help.
To understand the Australian failure to persuade Solomon Island to abandon the deal, one must take a broader view of Australia’s engagement in the Pacific and, in the Pacific, specifically the Melanesian region.
The China-Solomons deal is a culmination of Australia’s policy failures in the region in general.
It’s not an isolated incident and, unless Australian changes its approach, it is bound to face similar challenges in future.
First, no Pacific Island country will condemn another for a deal with China.
This is because most, if not all, of these countries have some form of arrangement with China, which has been offering loans to Pacific Island countries for years now.
In the Solomon Islands’ case, there has been direct funding to constituency funds.
Australia didn’t get much of a response from PNG because PNG has China-funded projects underway.
Fiji knows precisely how Australia uses Pacific Islands countries against another Pacific Islands country, after being kicked out of the Pacific Islands Forum following the last coup.
Furthermore, there is not much people to people connected between Australia and the Melanesian countries.
Compared to Polynesians in Australia, the Melanesians community in Australia is very small.
Melanesian countries have the largest populations, land mass and economies in the Pacific Islands, but are the most excluded from Australia.
It is very difficult for Melanesians to get a visa to travel to Australia, and it is near impossible for them to get citizenship.
The last really close connection Australia had with Melanesian countries was with the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels who assisted Australia’s war against the Japanese, and with those natives who fought against the Japanese alongside Australians.
I had grandfathers who spoke highly of Australian soldiers.
I don’t hear anything like this these days from their grandchildren.
Almost all the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels have passed on.
Australia is asking for help from countries that have no sympathy for Australia.
It won’t happen.
The irony of Australia’s decision to purchase nuclear powered submarines from the US is not lost on Pacific Islands’ peoples.
If that decision can be defended by Australia as a sovereign country conducting its foreign affairs, why shouldn’t the Solomon Islands defend its decision for a security pact with China as a sovereign country engaging in a deal with another country?
This is another reason why neither PNG nor Fiji would support Australia.
If PNG and Fiji help stop the Solomon Islands deal, what happens in the future when both of them engage in a deal Australia does not approve of?
The Australian submarines deal was important for the Pacific because the region has maintained a non-nuclear policy since the Cold War days.
Australia is buy nuclear powered submarines, not a nuclear armed submarines.
But the decision comes with risks nevertheless. Greens leader Adam Bandt referred to the boats as “floating Chernobyls.”
Finally, when was the last time Australia sought Pacific Islands opinions about its deals?
AUKUS (Australia, UK, US) and QUAD (Australia, India, Japan, US) surround the Pacific but the Pacific Islands have no part in these the deals, and neither were they consulted.
AUKUS and QUAD are deals Australia entered into as a sovereign country. It did not have to consult with the Pacific.
Ta-daaaa. Why cannot Solomon Islands do the same?
Australia’s assumption that the Pacific is its ‘backwater’, ‘backyard’ or ‘family’ is a very patronising view.
It’s unsustainable, and needs a change.
"....under conservative governments our reputation has gone rapidly into reverse"
I was privileged in the early 1990s to sit, with Rowan Callick and other far more distinguished people than I, on a body charged with providing the Federal Minister then in charge of Pacific Island aid programs, advice and comment upon policy matters.
I am not aware what my colleagues on that body felt, but I had the distinct feeling that the then Minister and his DFA advisors tended to look with something approaching disdain on island leaders and that in their minds the quantum of aid provided ought to be matched by a reciprocal humility on the part of its recipients - and beyond disdain to members of our group (which is probably why it didn't last for very long). The government of the time was an ALP one.
But even before that, in 1987 I believe, that year's PIF meeting was marked by bouts of acrimony between Paias Wingti and Bob Hawke. I know this because along with Brown Bai I was in Sydney attempting to write a speech for Wingti at a luncheon organised in his honour that was to take place immediately after the PIF meeting and we had to re-write the speech at least four times as word came from the Forum of the state of play between the two leaders: when PW was pissed off with BH, a more aggressive tone have to be imparted, but no sooner had that been done than word came of newly recovered harmony and a re-write was needed. In the end PW was presented with a speech he hadn't seen in advance and which was, frankly, a mishmash, far too long and effectively aimless, but if anything still rather hostile reflecting the last received message.
So, while Stephen may care to believe that all was rosy with Bob and Paul in charge, I seriously doubt it; the seeds of the present situation were stirring even then.
And just as an aside, I was reading a little while ago the Hansard reports of the debates in the earliest of the Federal Parliaments. I strongly recommend PNG Attitude readers have a look at them and let me know if they think if anything has changed in the matter of how Australian politicians view Pacific (in this case specifically PNG) matters in the intervening 120 years.
Posted by: Richard Jackson | 22 April 2022 at 07:24 PM
Posted by: Bernard Corden | 22 April 2022 at 10:24 AM
The PM of the Solomons is not the only one that has a long memory. This is delayed pay back for the Moti kerfuffle 16 years ago.
Posted by: Paul Oates | 21 April 2022 at 03:55 PM
PNG was governed by Australia (with Papua being a fully fledged territory and New Guinea being entrusted to Australia under a mandate from the United Nations) before PNG gained independence in 1975.
Australia left us high and dry. It made everything difficult for us. It made it difficult for Papua New Guineans to get visas to travel to Australia and made it easy for Polynesians to travel to Australia via New Zealand.
PNG was used to defend Australia during World War 2, not Tonga, Samoa etc.
Australia has always taken us for granted, thinking the Melanesian island nations are not significant in the Asia Pacific region.
Now the tide had turned, and the Melanesian Island nations are significant. They can play China against Australia and the US. Why not?
It's our turn to do as we please so you wake up and start treating us (Melanesian Island nations) as equal partners.
Posted by: Hamilton W Uberawa | 21 April 2022 at 01:21 PM
This is the sad truth Lindsay. Exploitation has long been the order of the day and China has not been alone in this.
Australia too can take a bow for ripping off resources and trashing the environment of Pacific nations. Nauru (phosphate), PNG (trees, minerals), Solomons (ditto). The result is destroyed primary forest, polluted rivers and dead reefs.
We like to think we are the big Kahuna on the block. If that was indeed ever so then we have badly missed our chance to support the economies of Melanesia in appropriate ways. Ways that might have resulted in Australia being seen as a true partner instead of the arrogant s.o.b it has become.
There is no doubt that under conservative governments our reputation has gone rapidly into reverse. What Micheal has pointed out is quite correct. We can only hope for a more nuanced and informed team in Canberra after the May election.
Posted by: Stephen Charteris | 21 April 2022 at 11:17 AM
In 2018, round logs made up 79% of Solomons foreign reserves receipts.
Posted by: Lindsay F Bond | 20 April 2022 at 11:48 PM