Why it matters
“The Pacific Step-up builds on Australia’s history of sustained engagement with countries in the Pacific and our shared and abiding interest in the promotion of sovereignty, stability, security and prosperity in the region. In line with the Boe Declaration adopted by Pacific leaders at the 2018 Pacific Islands Forum, Australia is enhancing its security cooperation with Pacific countries, including through expanded ADF training activities, infrastructure development, maritime capability and people-to-people links.”
2020 Defence Strategic Update, July 2020
There are power imbalances that create tension in the relationship between Australia and the Pacific. Due to its dominance in providing funding for the Pacific, with Australia the number one donor providing 35% of all aid to the Pacific in 2019, there is a danger of Australian frameworks being adopted by default rather than addressing development challenges in ways that are respectful, dialogic and mutual.
Diplomatic references to the “Pacific family” are intended to reflect an ideal relationship of cooperation but this does not always ring true. Issues where Australia is perceived as prioritising its own self-interest include withholding support from Pacific cooperation on global climate change action and on visa and business access for Pacific citizens.
From Pacific points of view, Australia can lack policy coherence in setting positions and agendas and in practice. For instance, Australia’s past statements about denuclearisation are now complicated through the AUKUS agreement. Pacific views are often collated and included in consultations by some ministries and departments but then overlooked by other parts of the Australian Government when key decisions are made. Sometimes this is interpreted as Australia not listening to the Pacific, but it should be seen as an issue of conflicting priorities where Australia’s global agenda trumps its regional agenda; that is, Australia is aware of Pacific views but then prioritises global strategies.
The lack of coordination between Australian agencies can mean Pacific leaders and senior civil servants are burdened by many meetings and seemingly overlapping or conflicting agendas of Australia and other like-minded countries. Approaches are sometimes experienced as ad hoc and driven by specific Australian requests, rather than informed by longer-term policies and plans. This can result in assistance provided that may not be needed, or testing approaches in the Pacific rather than drawing on grounded analysis of what works in local contexts.
Coordination with other countries is also an issue. The increasing interest in the region by Five Eyes countries plus France and Japan has flagged a level of “competition” for the delivery of assistance. New Zealand has invested significantly in the Pacific, and other partners are ramping up investment, such as increased access to aid and the re-establishment of a US Embassy in Solomon Islands. Australia is not the only regional provider and needs to acknowledge this by aligning with and leveraging off other likeminded countries to make collective efforts meaningful and enduring.
Because security is political, both Australian and Pacific leaders can focus on short-term political considerations, which can divert attention away from trends and threats to peace and stability that need longer-term and sustained action. A focus on elected leaders and senior civil servants in consultations can also exclude women, given their lack of representation in these areas, meaning that the gendered drivers of insecurity, and the gendered impacts of security decisions, are not fully understood.
Both Pacific island countries and the Australian Government lack accountability on following through the policies and intergovernmental instruments they have signed. There are many good statements of intent, but implementation and review of progress towards security goals is less clear. This is also complicated by small island developing states having to respond to a spectrum of international law issues without the staffing and expertise of larger states. Coordination and sustainability of effort is crucial to support the Pacific for regional security.
The vision in practice
Supporting Pacific-led Regionalism
Australia supports regionalism in the Pacific as valuable in and of itself. This includes support for the Pacific Islands Forum and related regional agencies, particularly for services that can help member countries respond to security, technological and legal developments.
Pacific regionalism remains an imperative, given the greater bargaining power that Pacific island countries can leverage collectively to engage with larger powers and international institutions and the ability to pool resources and cooperate across countries.
CASE STUDY: WORKING REGIONALLY, MARITIME AND FISHERIES OPERATIONS
Regional maritime and fisheries monitoring, control and surveillance operations and cooperation have a long history in the Pacific, working through regional institutions. In these operations, agencies across national jurisdictions cooperate over a set period to crack down on illegal and unregistered operations in the Pacific ocean. An example is the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA) which coordinated a recent operation, Operation Island Chief which covered an area of 18.4 million square kilometres.
The FFA regional team was supported by seven officers from the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force (RSIPF), Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources, and Australian Defence Force (working remotely due to COVID), provided intelligence gathering and analysis, supplementing targeted information before and during the operation in order to support surveillance activities by Member countries. Australia, New Zealand, France and the United States provided support through aerial and surface surveillance, alongside the FFA Aerial Surveillance Programme aircraft, further enhancing the maritime surveillance coverage during the operation. Twelve ships, eight aircraft and dark vessel detection technology rounded out the assets included in this complex operation. A great deal of the success of the operations has been due to increased local capacity which gives depth in expertise to Pacific security personnel.
CASE STUDY: NEW SECURITY MECHANISMS: PACIFIC FUSION CENTRE
The Pacific Fusion Centre is a newly established centre based in Vanuatu that intends to deliver training and strategic analysis against security priorities identified by Pacific Island Forum Leaders in the 2018 Boe Declaration on Regional Security. Under the guidance of the Pacific Islands Forum Sub-committee on Regional Security, the Centre provides assessments and advice on Pacific regional security challenges, including climate security, human security, environmental and resource security, transnational crime, and cyber security.
The Pacific Fusion Centre will host security analysts from across the Pacific for capacity building and information sharing and cooperation activities. The first cohort of seconded analysts to join the Centre in Port Vila arrive in 2022 and will spend up to six months producing strategic assessments. They will receive training and mentoring opportunities to enhance their analytical assessment skills before returning to their home countries.
Responding to Local Security Agendas
While Australia and Pacific island countries agree on a human security approach, more attention is needed to put this approach into action, working to provide safety at the individual level through to the country level and wider region. Putting the Boe Declaration into practice means a human security approach that reaches out to subnational and non-state groups, women’s groups and youth groups to help create peaceful and cohesive societies. This includes:
- Feminist approaches and centering the perspectives of women in decision making, such as supporting Pacific Women Lead and other programs led and staffed by islander women
- Developing a shared feminist foreign policy agenda for the region, which centres Indigenous people, approaches and worldviews, recognises the gendered drivers of insecurity and applies locally owned solutions.
- Social inclusion, acknowledging large youth populations in the Pacific and need to respond to their economic and political imperatives
National security strategies can anchor how Australia and like-minded countries coordinate and deliver cross-sectoral efforts. Countries can support the Pacific with staffing and resource gaps, but must ensure they are partners that follow security agendas set locally and regionally rather than paternalistic providers.
Australia has invested in support for national security strategies in some countries, whilst others are yet to draft and/or ratify theirs (including Australia itself). As a priority, Australia or its international partners must ensure that Pacific countries continue to have the assistance needed to draft and ratify individual strategies to bring to life the commitments of the Boe Declaration. In the absence of these, there are policies and strategies that should set the priorities for aid and technical support. It is Australia’s national interest to maintain good relationships with Pacific island countries by aligning to the priorities outlined in these Pacific strategies.
Partnered multi-agency efforts which deliver the pillars of the national security strategies could provide a more effective, coordinated, and accountable pathway to delivering priority outcomes for Pacific countries. The previous Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) and the current Vanuatu Australia Police and Justice Program (VAPJP) provide contemporary examples of how multilateral missions work in a defence, justice and policing context, although there is potential for improvement. Working under unified command, such a model would allow partners from like-minded countries to leverage their own interests through their participation and the provision of relevant capability and financial support. This is a ‘big idea’ that would reduce existing duplication of effort and respond better to security challenges – but it would require challenging prevailing thinking on program delivery and funding.
Such multi-agency efforts also need to include support for preexisting networks including the Pacific Islands Chiefs of Police, Pacific Community for Law Enforcement Cooperation and Pacific Fusion Centre to regularise learning amongst Pacific island countries and opportunities for multistate cooperation on policing and security. Joint operations on drugs, money laundering, human trafficking and maritime surveillance which result in prosecutions and increased deterrence are needed for a safe and secure region.
CASE STUDY: SUPPORTING PACIFIC VISIONS, NATIONAL SECURITY STRATEGIES
Four Pacific island countries (Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Vanuatu and Solomon Islands) have completed national security strategies with funding and technical assistance from Australia. National security strategies differ across countries, but many threats are common to all, while each strategy has a context specific analysis of the security environment, current local capabilities, and gaps and actions needed. The strategies give governments and partners tools to prioritise and deliver actions and work more cohesively, with a whole of government approach, to allocate resources.
National security strategies are an example of how Australia can support sovereign decisions of Pacific island countries to identify security threats and concerns and enable appropriate responses. These strategies have become even more prescient as Pacific countries grapple with COVID-19 health, economic and security impacts.
Building Intergovernmental Cooperation
Effective cooperation is underpinned by a network of intergovernmental instruments, for example on information-sharing (including sharing of classified information), logistics, defence cooperation and visiting forces arrangements. Australia should review existing instruments between Australia and Pacific island countries to identify gaps and prioritise areas for further work.
Australia can also assist in reviewing gaps in the extent to which Pacific island countries are parties to key international treaties, including on topics such as corruption, transnational crime and money-laundering, and support countries to become parties to them including helping them work through challenges to their becoming parties to particular treaties.
Australia can support more Pacific candidates, particularly women, for roles in international organisations and can encourage the creation of Pacific national groups under the Permanent Court of International Arbitration. It can assist with capacity-building for smaller Pacific nations in legal fields and diplomatic tradecraft to strengthen Pacific island countries’ ability to participate effectively in international forums.
CASE STUDY: CONNECTED ISLANDS, CONNECTED SECURITY PERSONNEL
Pacific regional organisations and partners have supported specific networks and regularised contact between security personnel across national borders. These are important forums for learning from each other and identifiying opportunities for cooperation across Pacific island countries to prevent and address security threats. The Pacific Islands Chiefs of Police (PICP) convene regularly and run projects on issues of joint interest such as preventative policing, cyber safety, gender and policing, family violence and transnational crime. This has been running for over fifty years with the support of various partners and is hosted by New Zealand Police at their headquarters in Wellington. The group also has the Pacific Community for Law Enforcement Cooperation (PCLEC) that supports capability development in law enforcement priority areas as directed by PICP and involves Pacific security personnel and support from the Australian Federal Police.
Changing the Climate Conversation
Australia must make up for lost time it has spent disagreeing with Pacific island countries on climate change and indicate its seriousness to act and to support Pacific-wide initiatives. Pathways to change the conversation and demonstrate Australia’s partnership with the Pacific include:
- Supporting Pacific-led and Pacific-supported climate change initiatives, such as the Pacific Resilience Facility, Green Climate Fund and the Group of Friends for Climate and Security at the United Nations.
- Establish a regional climate risk assessment to examine risks to both Australia and Pacific island countries from climate change
- Support regional 1.5 track dialogues, such as launching a Suva Dialogue for multilateral discussions and to build coalitions for change
- Back collective diplomatic strategy for driving emissions reduction in multilateral forums
- Consider and respond to views on loss and damage reparations coming from the Pacific
CASE STUDY: RESPONDING TO CLIMATE CHANGE AND PACIFIC RIGHTS THROUGH MARITIME BOUNDARIES ASSISTANCE
Climate change poses challenges towards the definition of maritime boundaries of Pacific island countries as these may change due sea level rise and land degradation. Their response has been to utilise regional solidarity and international activism, particularly under the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), to establish decisions and precedents that can cement Pacific island countries’ control over their boundaries over the past 20 years.
Most recently this culminated commitment at the 2019 PIF leaders’ meeting for “a collective effort to develop international law with the aim of ensuring that once a PIF Member’s maritime zones are delineated in accordance with UNCLOS, that Member’s maritime zones cannot be challenged or reduced as a result of sea-level rise and climate change” as stated in the communique.
Supporting regional cooperation on this issue has been the Pacific Islands Regional Maritime Boundaries Project, a collaboration of regional organisations, Australian institutions and Pacific island countries which provides technical support for Pacific island states to clarify the extent of their maritime jurisdictions, including: depositing information about their maritime boundaries with the Secretary-General of the UN; preparing continental shelf submission for the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf; updating maritime zones legislation; and delineating the limits of their maritime zones, including drafting and negotiating maritime boundaries treaties. At least 49 maritime boundaries have been clarified as a result of this project.
Supporting Good Governance and Open Societies
Australia continues and expands its investments in civil society, media and other socio-political institutions critical to countering external influence. This includes partnerships with traditional leaders such as chiefs, as well as networks of women and youth leaders and facilitators for inclusive governance that fit local cultural contexts. This needs to be respectful of Pacific sovereignty.
Support to increase women’s political participation and representation is critical to enabling good governance and democracy in the Pacific. This must be accompanied by holistic efforts to achieve gender equality and inclusion through changes to norms and institutions.
Strengthening democratic norms and good governance is vital. This includes increased support for journalism, supporting mainstream media as an important source of debate and information in Pacific island countries and their ability to report accurately and safely as well as bolstering online forums for information and debate. Countries that have the pillars of peace – such as well-functioning governments, low corruption and strong connections between government and societal forms of governance – have higher resilience to counter threats.
Security agencies can also cooperate to improve accountability of staff and institutions, for example Australia can provide support for security vetting systems to help build a secure and trusted Pacific government workforce, and support efforts for intelligence sharing across borders about persons of interest or with criminal convictions.
Coordinated technical assistance for telecommunications and infrastructure for Pacific island countries to set the terms for investment, including assessing offers and setting terms in line with Pacific needs, can also contribute to infrastructure which connects people and institutions and promotes information sharing.
Strong relationships are built by interest in and understanding of other societies and extensive networks of people-to-people links. Greater understanding by Australia and Pacific island countries of each others’ security concerns can be built through pathways that recognise and value relationships between people:
- Investment in Pacific literacy in Australia, building cultural understanding, language, better appreciation of divisions and shared chapters in our history
- Promote education, civil society and peer-to-peer linkages to increase knowledge of the Pacific among Australians for more mutual relationships where each understands the other
A Focus on Mediation and Peacebuilding
Structural changes to Australian assistance and institutions could create more capacity for conflict resolution, mediation and peacebuilding. This could include restoring the Conflict and Fragility team or setting up a Peace and Conflict unit within DFAT which would provide expert advice and services such as mediation and conflict resolution, while directly supporting mediation and peacebuilding initiatives within the region. Such services may be particularly valuable in cases such as secessionism and independence movements. The unit could also provide services to regional organisations when required. These efforts should also be aligned with the Women Peace and Security Agenda which emphasises the need for women’s participation in peacebuilding processes.
While it is a politically sensitive issue, Australia needs to look ahead strategically to plan for any potential transition by Pacific territories to new political status. This would focus on the building blocks required to support peaceful transition, including capacity building programs such as scholarships, technical assistance, medical training, information-sharing, volunteer programs (especially in English language teaching), politics and other initiatives.
CASE STUDY: CUSTOM FOR CHANGE, THE VANUATU KASTOM GOVERNANCE PARTNERSHIP
Local and traditional leaders in many Pacific countries, notably chiefs, play an important role in security, through governance and mediating disputes. In the Vanuatu Kastom Governance Partnership, a four year Australian-funded project, the Malvatumauri National Council of Chiefs and University of Queensland pursued research, dialogues, local action plans and linkages between chiefs, women and youth representatives and government agencies with the goal of increasing understanding of the role of kastom governance and supporting constructive interaction between kastom governance systems and the formal governance systems at national, provincial and community levels.The project also included two-way learning between Australian and ni-Vanuatu actors in the security space. For example, research and recommendations about ways of working with traditional leaders were shared with the Australian Federal Police and Australian Defence Force over a series of workshops, and Vanuatu leaders also became better linked and dialogued with security agencies through the course of several rounds. Australian aid also funded the chiefs to conduct certain activities aimed at improving governance in their communities and islands. Several capacity-building activities were built into the partnership to assist chiefs with organisational management, and situating indigenous organisations within the structure of formal and informal security institutions.
International Women’s Development Agency
Peace and Conflict Studies Institute Australia
Institute for Economics & Peace
ANU Strategic and Defence Studies Centre
University of Adelaide
Australia-Pacific Security College
Papua New Guinea Resource Governance Coalition
Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat
Former AFP Commander, Pacific
ANU Crawford School of Public Policy
Griffith Asia Institute
ANU National Security College
Melissa Conley Tyler
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons license. You can reprint or republish with attribution.
You can cite this paper as: Asia-Pacific Development, Diplomacy & Defence Dialogue, What does it look like for Australia to be an effective partner for a secure and peaceful Pacific (Canberra 2022): www.asiapacific4d.com
Photo on this page: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade
This paper is the product of the Asia-Pacific Development, Diplomacy & Defence Dialogue’s inaugural program, ‘Shaping a shared future — deepening Australia’s influence in Southeast Asia and the Pacific’, funded by the Australian Civil-Military Centre.