NOOSA – In late October 2010, then United States’ secretary of state Hillary Clinton was in Honolulu nearing the end of a comprehensive tour of the Asia-Pacific region.
In two weeks Clinton was to visit Papua New Guinea, New Zealand and Australia, and high on her agenda were discussions about military cooperation and action “to respond to a more complex maritime environment”.
Clinton said in a speech given in Honolulu:
“We are practicing ‘forward-deployed’ diplomacy. We've sent the full range of our diplomatic assets into every corner and every capital of the Asia-Pacific region…. in an active effort to advance shared objectives.”
“Much of the history of the 21st century will be written in Asia,” she said. “And it is a future in which the United States must lead.
“There are some who say that this long legacy of American leadership in the Asia-Pacific is coming to a close. That we are not here to stay. And I say, look at our record. It tells a very different story.”
But in the Pacific Islands, that has not been the story. In fact the last 12 years has been a tale of American aloofness and Chinese affinity.
And, if the US was expecting Australia – as the regional power - to pick up some of the burden of projecting leadership and assisting with economic growth, regional security and enduring values in the south-west Pacific, it was largely mistaken.
Instead Australia became better known as a sometime friend, its repetitive utterance of the patronising term ‘our Pacific family’ bordering on offensive as the region strenuously battles the causes and effects of climate change to an indifferent Australia.
Symbolising this attitude in 2015 was a video clip showing then Australian prime minister Abbott and ministers Morrison and Dutton referring to climate change with a bad joke and smirks about rising sea levels beneath a dangling microphone.
Internationally, Pacific Islands countries are amongst the world’s leading advocates for climate change action, while Australia is one of the most resistant opponents.
So, over the full term of the current Liberal-National coalition government, instead of being a mature, open and steadfast leader in its neighbourhood, Australia is regarded as something of a pariah.
The deployment last November of 66 Australian army and police personnel “to provide security and stability” in the Solomon Islands’ capital Honiara was an impetuous unilateral decision to help curb civil unrest.
There were suspicions it was not motivated by neighbourliness but by prime minister Morrison’s domestic political problems in Australia.
Morrison's Lone Ranger predicament was eventually assisted by the willingness of neighbouring countries to join the Solomons' mission and change the optics from ‘Australian intervention’ to ‘regional cooperation’.
But, despite this assistance, the Solomons’ recently turning to China for security assistance in the two countries’ rapidly blossoming bilateral relationship.
In 2018 the Solomons’ government had watched the Australian government hastily freeze out Chinese company Huawei from rolling out a submarine cable under the Solomon Sea, claiming it could jeopardise Australia’s security.
And last year it observed the Morrison government grant telco giant Telstra $1.6 billion (K4.2 billion) to head off China in purchasing the Digicel mobile phone networks in PNG, Fiji, Nauru, Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu.
None of these interventions deterred the Solomons’ strengthening its alignment with China this year. It had established diplomatic relations only in 2019.
Nor would the Solomons have overlooked the tawdry remarks from the Sydney-based Lowy Institute in February last year after five Micronesian nations threatened to exit the Pacific Islands Forum where Australia and New Zealand were throwing their weight around to oppose the selection a Micronesian secretary-general.
The editor of the Institute’s Interpreter magazine, Daniel Flitton, compared the regional dispute to a “toddler’s tantrum” and said Pacific Island nations had “some growing up to do”.
Flitton’s condescending remarks were further inflamed by rants about Nauruan connections to the Kremlin and an alleged link between the Marshall Islands and Hezbollah.
Then his colleague, Jonathan Pryke, who recently left his post as director of the Institute’s Pacific program to take a job with Australia’s foreign affairs department, suggested the root of the problem was that Pacific Island leaders were too constrained by culture to hold effective meetings by video link:
“They are accustomed to seeing each other regularly, getting used to these things taking time, Pryke mansplained to the world.
“The Pacific Islands Forum prides itself on consensus decision-making. Decisions can be contentious, but they always do reach that consensus.
“How that will work over Zoom, with possible internet bandwidth and connectivity issues, we don’t know.”
Understandably, these views drew a barrage of criticism from PNG and the Pacific.
Port Moresby businessman Corney Alone said colonial-era sentiments about the Pacific were alive and well in Australia. “Believe them when they tell you [the truth],” he said of the Lowy frolic.
Prominent PNG media commentator Martyn Namorong mocked the article as “typical Australian snobbery”, accusing the Institute of already being tone-deaf and getting worse.
“I’m glad the Lowy Institute ran this article because it explains how Australians think about us,” Namorong wrote, echoing Alone. “They basically think of us as riff-raff.”
And Māori activist Sina Brown-Davis minced no words in her analysis, deriding the Lowy remarks as “absolutely racist and patronising”.
The incident reminded me of former Australian foreign minister Bill Hayden’s reflection that “words are bullets in international relations”.
It is against this background of mindless slight and the transcending issue of Australia’s failure to deal effectively with the causes of climate change that has brought the Pacific Islands to a point where, far from seeing themselves as part of 'our Pacific family', they are deeply concerned about the relationship .
This foot in mouth attitude is bipartisan. Late in 2021, the Labor Party's deputy opposition leader Richard Marles published a book, 'Tides that Bind: Australia in the Pacific’, with an indictable pun for a title and a startling core thesis.
“Now more than ever, the Pacific needs a champion”, wrote Marles, “[and] the Pacific desperately wants Australia to assume this role.”
If we are to take Marles seriously, there is only one obstacle to Australia leading the Pacific Islands like a Pied Piper in slouch hat and dungarees. We don’t want the job.
The Morrison government had “patently failed the Pacific on the question of climate change,” Marles wrote, and its "development assistance has drifted away from supporting health outcomes. While the talk is strong, the walk is weak”.
But to Pacific leaders, Marles message that they want Australia to lead is very far off the mark.
In fact it indicates that the man who could be Australia's deputy prime minister in a few weeks time has a weak understanding of politics in the Pacific Islands.
So I come to the recent decision by the Solomons’ government to exercise its sovereign right to enter into a security partnership with China as part of a much wider set of cooperative arrangements.
A leaked story early this week caused something akin to mass hysteria in the Australian polity, press and think-tanks.
It was if suddenly and unexpectedly we would have the Red Army a mere 2,000 kilometers away from our shores.
Solomons' prime minister Manasseh Sogavare confirmed a security treaty was being finalised with China but said “there is no intention whatsoever to ask China to build a military base.”
”Where does that nonsense come from?” he asked.
Sogavare vigorously denied claims in the Australian media that China had pressured the Solomons to build a military installation in the country.
“We denied [the story] totally,” Sogavare said. “We don’t know where it came from.
“We are insulted by such an unfounded stories and comments.”
Pondering whether Sogavare may see the agreement as a way to consolidate his grip on political power, Solomons opposition leader Matthew Wale wrote in The Guardian:
“The proposed security deal between Solomon Islands and China may appear to be all about security, but it is in fact counterproductive to the security interests of Solomon Islands and the Pacific Islands region.
“There is already an agreement with China on policing support. This new deal therefore has to be seen in light of China’s reach into this part of the Pacific.
“The Solomons’ relationships with its regional partners are not perfect.
“The US, Australia and New Zealand have, to varying degrees, been neglectful in the region over the past decade – particularly regarding the existential threat posed by climate change.
“But the proposed security deal with China is not the solution.”
Wale argued a case for his position that seemed to predicate a virtual Chinese takeover of the Solomons. My paraphrase:
The Solomons has traditional partners that are like-minded democracies with shared values.
The deal will affect the regional security balance.
Issues will arise for Australia, New Zealand and the US.
This is an unacceptable way to treat our friends.
China has a different and unfamiliar system of government; individual rights are not regarded in the same way.
The deal will make the Solomons a geopolitical playing field.
The security agreement could impact stability in the whole Pacific.
Mihai Sora, a research fellow at the Lowy Institute and a former Australian diplomat in the Solomon Islands also was given space for an article The Guardian.
Sora, a former Pacific analyst at the Office of National Assessments, a role my brother had 40 years ago, revealed that the draft security agreement includes Chinese “police, armed police, military personnel and other law enforcement and armed forces” deployments to Solomon Islands.
It also allows China, with the consent of Solomon Islands, to make ship visits and provide logistical support.
“A bilateral agreement such as the one proposed between China and Solomon Islands shows a limited appreciation for security of the region as a whole,” according to Sora.
However he did admit that, while the draft was “further evidence of China’s strategic intent in the Pacific”, it was uncertain whether China would establish a permanent military base.
“The Solomon Islands would no doubt seek to narrow the terms of the agreement, walking back some of the commitments that China has proposed.”
The targeting of Chinese nationals during last November’s riots provided some rationale for a Chinese security presence in Honiara and China has since sent a handful of police to train Solomon’s police and some anti-riot equipment:
“The scope of the agreement allows China to provide security assistance to major projects.
“With more than 90% of Solomon Islands’ extractive resources by weight going to China in 2019, and a slew of major infrastructure projects being promised by Chinese state-owned enterprises in the country, such an agreement could be tied to Sogavare’s attempt to deliver on his promise of increased economic benefits to Solomon Islands arising from the switch....
“Australia will have to be realistic about an increased Chinese security presence in the Pacific.
“The challenge for policymakers in Canberra will be how to respond to an increasingly crowded Pacific without escalating geopolitical tensions in the region.”
Australia has over many years failed to establish appropriate, equal and equitable relationships with PNG and the Pacific Islands. Now it was seen to have overreacted by exaggerating and falsely interpreting a leaked document.
Australia has a poor track record in its dealings with the Pacific Islands. Over recent years Australia and the United States have overseen a lot of drift in the relationship.
And if anything abhors a vacuum more than Nature, it is geopolitics.
In The Australian newspaper yesterday, Dr John Lee wrote on ‘How Beijing successfully peddles a dishonest but compelling narrative to the Pacific’, which by comparison makes Sora’s analysis look quite limp, which it is not.
From 2016-18, Lee was a national security adviser to then foreign minister Julie Bishop and in the article he offered some trenchant, even belligerent, views about China and the Solomons that align well with the current right wing rhetoric emerging from the Morrison government and its camp followers.
In a nutshell, Lee’s argument is summed up in the newspaper's headline, but I think this extract from the article is a fair representation of his thesis:
“We need a better understanding of what China is doing.
“Money clearly has something to do with it [however] it is not the amount but how Beijing has directed and leveraged its financial contributions that is worrying.
“The aid has been used to create privileged entry points for Chinese state-owned and private firms to fund and build projects as part of the Belt and Road Initiative…..
“An effective Pacific ‘step up’ is not just about giving more money to countries.
“We need to win the information and influence war by going on the offensive.”
This latter point concluded Lee’s article, so it was not further explained what this offensive might look like.
Nor was there an examination of how the Pacific Islands nations might react to it.
In an article in the China Daily a couple of weeks ago, Chandran Nair, CEO of Global Institute for Tomorrow, an independent think tank based in Hong Kong, offered some ideas that should temper the thinking of the likes of Lee.
From the other end of the ideological rainbow, Nair wrote of the “inevitable rivalry” of two superpowers, the US and China, which “camouflages an uncomfortable truth: that we are moving from a Western-constructed world into a post-Western world.”
Nair sees geopolitical discord as not being just about politics or economics, but also about race.
In doing so he notes that the loudest criticisms of China come from the Anglosphere countries — the US, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
I think his inclusion of New Zealand was unfair as its approach to dealing with China is far more nuanced and intelligent than Australia’s.
Nair quotes Samuel P Huntington in ‘The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order’:
“The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion … but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact; non-Westerners never do.
“Before condemning China as a dangerous dystopia, remember that the current dominance of the Anglosphere, and other European countries, largely arises from their bloody imperial legacy, much of which was genocidal....
“Instead of clinging to its ideas of national, racial and cultural superiority, the Anglosphere should seek a major reset and broker a meaningful dialogue with China.
"The non-white world also needs to have renewed faith in its own values and judgements.
“As we move into a new world order, this can be a chance for new systems of collaboration and plurality to emerge — by working with China rather than against it."
Well that’s certainly a more positive thought than the one Australia is prosecuting at the moment which until early this week was based on ‘China won’t meet with us’ and is now based on ‘we won’t meet with China’ after Morrison spurned an olive branch proffered by China’s new ambassador in Canberra.
The gulf between Australia’s rhetoric and its action on China is steeped in such cognitive dissonance.
The Morrison government has signalled that is intends to breach the contract but nevertheless continues a 99-year lease over the Port of Darwin granted to Chinese company Shandong Landbridge in 2015 by then trade minister Andrew Robb.
The day after he left parliament in 2016, Robb took an $880,000 a year job as a consultant for Landbridge.
Such dissonance continues when we note that Chinese companies are the second largest foreign owner of land in Australia (2.3% of land mass).
And we find the same federal government that hurls abuse at China is seemingly relaxed about Chinese investments in the services sector of the Australian economy.
In 2020 that came to nearly $530 million (K1.4 billion) representing 21% of investment volume in the sector.
Then, there are the bizarre antics of prime minister Morrison in deliberately not seeking to mend the deteriorated diplomatic relationship between China and Australia despite this week being given an opportunity to do so by China's new man in Canberra.
China, as most readers will be aware, is Australia's largest two-way trading partner.
In 2021, it provided our biggest export market, worth $156 billion (K411 billion), and was our biggest provider of imports, at $97 billion (K256 billion).
But Australia's political leaders are quite content to hurl abuse at China for "not picking up the phone" even as they refuse a meeting signalling there may be a pathway to normalise relationships. Most peculiar mama, as John Lennon wrote.
Hillary Clinton had said in 2010, “I would simply point out that since the beginning of our diplomatic relations, China has experienced breathtaking growth and development.
“[We] do look forward to working closely with China, both bilaterally and through key institutions as it takes on a greater role and, at the same time, takes on more responsibility in regional and global affairs.”
Depending on where you sit on the ideological spectrum, those words may now seem either alarmingly naïve or indicating a positive way through the murk of super power rivalry.
But I find it hard to blame the Solomon Islands’ government, elected to run one of the world’s poorest countries, for seeking its own pathway for its future.
It would be much more effective if Australia pulled its weight in PNG and the Pacific and sought a new relational basis with the region instead of free-falling into hysteria every mention of the word ‘China’.
Why choose conflict?