The government of Australia released on 1 July 2020 an update regarding the Australian Defence Forces’ (ADF) military capabilities and outlook. It acknowledged that the geopolitical situation in the Indo-Pacific has worsened and, in response, the government pledged to greatly increase military spending. But remodeling the army’s aims as suggested by this update would lead to the neglection of a key security pillar for Australia: The Pacific island states.
“It is clear (…) that Australia’s strategic environment has deteriorated more rapidly than anticipated (…)” can be read in the foreword of the paper. Many analysts believe the government is alluding to security threats to Australia posed by China, which has often been accused of seeking greater influence in the region and the country itself. Clearly, the Australian government is not happy with recent developments and has decided to defend its interests more seriously.
Throughout the 64-page document, the word “partners” is mentioned abundantly. Historically, Australia’s closest and most dependent partners lie in the Pacific Ocean: island nations such as the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji, and the list goes on. However, it is no secret that these island states are unhappy with the way they are treated by the Australian government due to its downplaying of their climate issues and incorrect conduct of diplomacy. Multiple research papers back up these claims by reckoning that Australia is losing its grip on the region and foreign powers, predominantly China, are filling the vacuum.
In recent decades, China has increased its investments in South Pacific Islands, challenging Australia as the main power (and donor) in the region. China has many reasons for seeking influence in these nations. First, they wish to strip Taiwan of its political allies–many of which are Pacific island nations. Second, by gaining greater leverage over these states, it will become easier for China to increase their military presence in the region and potentially even set up military bases. As mentioned above, Australia has not yet demonstrated an apt response to these developments and, until now, left the door wide open for China.
These contested island nations are only mentioned collectively in the 2020 Defence Strategic Update and never by name, symbolising that they do not play an important role in Australia’s new defence policy. Meanwhile, powerful regional players, such as Japan or India, are frequently named in a bid to demonstrate the significance of Australia’s cooperation with these countries. Although it is understandable that the Australian government may want to hedge against China with its strong partners and flex its newfound military prowess, the Pacific islands are in danger of becoming all but forgotten.
If the Australian Defence Forces do not want greater Chinese presence on their doorstep, then the government should consider expanding relations with Pacific islands a priority. First of all, they must regain the nations’ trust. Australia could work toward this goal by readdressing issues previously neglected, like the impact of climate change, and providing greater assistance and technology. Officially, the Pacific Step-up is an initiative aimed at achieving better economic relations, but progress has been slow and results scarce.
However, the 2020 Defence Strategic Update has its own potential if used correctly. By expanding military cooperation, Australia can foster stability and trust in Pacific governments and people. One option would be for the ADF to share new technologies, for example the proposed upgrade of the Jindalee Operational Radar Network which monitors sea movements off the coast of Australia, with Pacific partners. Signing new, comprehensive defence agreements for enhanced training, joint exercises or intelligence sharing, like Australia has already managed with their other partners, India, Japan or the U.S., in operations such as the Malabar naval exercise, would also help in deepening ties.
The Australian government should, with the help of such distinct actions as listed above, consider repairing their fraught ties with the Pacific states. Evidently, the ideas and resources exist–now those words need to be followed by effective actions. If this frontier is forgotten and the ADF mainly focuses on strengthening relations with powerful countries, then China will swiftly establish itself in the region and Australia may find its Strategic Update in need of serious and swift revision.
Cover picture: Picture retrieved from Pixabay