In this issue, we’ll enumerate some of the immediate challenges faced by Ms Wong and her cabinet colleagues.
The Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat is in a shambles right now, in no small part because of Australia’s call for a vote during the selection of its most recent Secretary General, rather than enduring more painstaking but traditional method of consensus-building our leaders learned in the village meeting house.
The voting split the membership, and the Micronesian contingent still have not reconciled themselves completely.
There is little Australia can do to fix that. But they can offer unconditional support to the body itself, and for the idea it embodies. They can formally uphold the Boe Declaration, which lists climate change as the single greatest security threat faced by the Pacific islands region, by re-basing (sorry) their security stance on this premise.
They can fund and support the Blue Pacific strategy. They can fund the Secretariat’s climate indemnity scheme. They can show our reluctant leaders that the PIF is worth being part of.
More importantly, they can promote our voices in Washington and at the UN. Our plight on the world stage resembles the challenges women have faced since… forever. Ignored, subverted, explained to, denied agency over our own body politic. We don’t need people to speak for us. We need people to listen when we speak for ourselves.
Endorsement and sponsorship for voices like those of our esteemed Pacific Elders
would go a long way to achieving that.
Even more ambitiously: Is a Pacific COP possible? I’d be pleasantly surprised if this Labor government proved willing to spend the time and effort reaching a landmark such as this. The time and resources required would be immense, and would compete with dozens of looming challenges in the foreign relations/defence space.
Despite the massive victory it could bring, the opportunity costs are immense. If a COP were achieved, it would build a legacy that could be relied on for years to come, but as we’ve stated before, all this would have to be achieved with a lethargic, hidebound DFAT bureaucracy.
It’s sadly much easier to imagine Australia lurching from crisis to crisis, as it has for decades.
In terms of bilateral relations, the stakes are even higher. It is clear now that China intends to build on its perceived momentum in the Pacific, and to test Labor’s mettle from the very start.
Wang Yi’s tour of four (or five?) Pacific island nations is only days away. His diplomats have been working hard to replicate the success they achieved with Solomon Islands PM Manasseh Sogavare, who signed an unprecedented security agreement that would allow personnel to be stationed in-country and ships to visit and re-victual.
It doesn’t appear that Wang will get what he wants. The pressure is on in Kiribati, but the government there has paid a hefty political price for its whole-throated support of China. Since 2020, it’s been feeling much more phlegmatic than it was in the past.
Good thing, too. A Chinese base in Kiribati is one that even I worry about. Having AA/AD capabilities just a hop, skip and a jump from Honolulu would force a fundamental re-evaluation of the US Navy’s Pacific stance.
I’ve pooh-poohed talk of bases in Vanuatu and Solomon Islands in the past. I worry about Kiribati.
Vanuatu, at least, has managed to keep dancing on the head of an increasingly pointy pin. Resisting pressure at the highest level to include an overt security component in Wang Yi’s gift bag, it has instead signed on to a massive upgrade for its Luganville airport
, which will allow wide-body aircraft to fly there directly from Asia.
The island of Espiritu Santo has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. An upgrade to its international airport is part of Vanuatu’s 2018 tourism development strategy.