Could Albanese’s election spark greater cross-Tasman collaboration in the Pacific?
There’s been no honeymoon period for Australia’s newly elected prime minister, Anthony Albanese, who commenced his term with a visit to Tokyo for a Quad leaders’ meeting with US President Joe Biden, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.
The counterparts discussed opportunities for greater collaboration in a deteriorating security environment, particularly amid the growing threat posed by China.
Just hours after his return to Canberra, reports emerged revealing China had shared a draft communique and an accompanying five-year action plan with 10 Pacific islands nations, aimed at establishing “traditional and non-traditional security” partnerships.
The “China-Pacific Island Countries Common Development Vision” draft document, which was leaked to Reuters, proposes intermediate and high-level police training for Pacific Island countries, while the action plan calls for ministerial dialogue on law enforcement capacity and police cooperation.
This includes the provision of forensic laboratories, cooperation on data networks, cyber security, and smart customs systems.
These latest revelations came just weeks after China struck a security agreement with the Solomon Islands.
So, how does the newly elected Albanese government propose to address these pressing concerns?
In addition to reaffirming Australia’s commitment to the Quad, the Albanese government has proposed a raft of measures to strengthen links with the region and counter Beijing’s growing influence.
This includes the establishment of a new Australia-Pacific Defence School, set up to provide training for members of defence and security forces from Pacific Island nations.
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Prime Minister Albanese has also pledged to double funding for the Pacific Maritime Security Program (PMSP), which involves providing aerial surveillance to counter illegal maritime activity, which reportedly cost Pacific Islands partners approximately US$150 million a year.
Other measures include:
- Investing $525 million over the next four years to enhance Australian Official Development Assistance for Pacific countries and Timor-Leste.
- Increasing funding to ABC International by $8 million per year over the forward estimates to deliver an Indo-Pacific Broadcasting Strategy, designed to facilitate access to Australian public and commercial media content, and increase training for Pacific journalists and enhance partnerships with broadcasters.
- Establishing a Pacific Climate Infrastructure Financing Partnership to support climate and clean energy infrastructure projects in Pacific countries.
- Conducting regular bipartisan parliamentary Pacific visits.
- Reforming the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (PALM) scheme’s Seasonal Worker Program (SWP) and expanding the PALM Pacific Labour Scheme (PLS).
- Meeting upfront travel costs for Pacific workers under the Seasonal Worker Program.
- Encouraging more Pacific permanent migration to Australia through a new Pacific Engagement Visa, modelled on New Zealand’s Pacific Access Resident visa.
Building a bridge across the ditch
According to Anna Powles, senior lecturer in international security at Massey University in New Zealand, and Joanne Wallis, professor of international security at the University of Adelaide, these measures would be welcomed across the Tasman.
Powles and Wallis claim Prime Minister Albanese’s Pacific plan could “narrow critical policy divergences” in Australia and New Zealand’s foreign policy approaches.
The pair notes alignments between the Albanese government’s plan and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s strategy, which include shared attitudes towards climate change, Pacific migration, maritime security, and development assistance.
“It’s likely that New Zealand will also welcome the ALP’s proposed Australia Pacific defence school to provide training programs for Pacific defence and security forces, albeit with caution given the increasingly crowded security sector in the region,” Powles and Wallis add.
“There is also likely to be some convergence on nuclear disarmament, as the ALP has committed to sign and ratify the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.”
However, the pair claims the onus would be on Wellington to bolster cooperation with Canberra.
“While there is much alignment between the Australian and New Zealand government’s policies, New Zealand is going to have to actively position itself as a key partner for Australia in the region,” they continue.
“…New Zealand needs to demonstrate to Australia – and, through Australia, to the US and other partners – that it can carry its share of the alliance burden.
“New Zealand should emphasise that in the Pacific Islands, where development, non-traditional security challenges and personal relationships are critical, it contributes to its alliance with Australia in a range of ways in addition to traditional military capabilities. New Zealand has considerable soft power that allows it to exercise influence.”
As such, the change of government in Australia “opens space to pursue new opportunities”, which include joint efforts to enable Pacific leaders to engage in “robust and nuanced public and private debate” on key regional issues.
“There’s a real risk that Pacific priorities and agendas will become increasingly overlooked and undermined in the noise and sound of the increasing focus of partners such as the US on the region,” Powles and Wallis write.
Further, Australia and New Zealand could “facilitate better coordination” between actors across the Pacific.
“The large number of states that responded to the Tongan tsunami earlier this year illustrated the need to do this in relation to humanitarian aid and disaster relief,” they note.
“Greater coordination across a range of security initiatives is needed, as is coordination across the growing number of aid and development initiatives that partners are embarking upon.”
Powles and Wallis also suggest Australia and New Zealand expand existing coordination mechanisms to involve Pacific Island states.
This could include opening membership of the Pacific Quad – the Quadrilateral Defence Coordinating Group made up of Australia, New Zealand, the US and France – and the FRANZ arrangement.
“This would elevate Pacific states to equal status with the partner countries involved in these initiatives, recognise that Pacific states are often best placed to take the lead [and] build capacity and strengthen collective security responses,” Powles and Wallis add.
Finally, the pair proposes Australia and New Zealand jointly explore opportunities to advance indigenous foreign policy approaches in the Pacific.
Powles and Wallis conclude: “Next year is the 80th anniversary of the opening of Australian and New Zealand diplomatic missions in each other’s countries and the 40th anniversary of the Closer Economic Relations agreement.
“It is an opportunity to demonstrate the value of the alliance to each other and to the Pacific.”