Australia must improve its defence and government relationships with Pacific nations to avoid having its influence in the region diminished, Labor’s defence spokesman has said.
In a speech to the Lowy Institute, opposition defence spokesman Richard Marles has called for defence force personnel from Pacific countries to undertake stints with the Australian Defence Force (ADF), similar to the relationship ADF personnel has with the US Armed Forces.
"Australia is the beneficiary of a deep defence relationship with the United States," Marles said.
"At any point in time hundreds of Australian defence force personnel are embedded within the US Armed Forces. They are given opportunities which could never be had within the ADF. They develop skills and capabilities which in turn empower the ADF when they come home.
"A version of the opportunities we derive from this defence relationship with the US could be provided by us to the defence forces of the Pacific. In the same way we derive a benefit from the US, the Pacific island countries could derive a benefit from us. And just as it suits the US to have a more capable Australian Defence Force, so too it would benefit us to see the capability of the Pacific island countries’ defence forces grow."
The Labor MP said while the current Pacific Patrol Boat Program, which provides vessels and Royal Australian Navy Maritime Surveillance Advisers to these nations, is a good initiative, it is not enough on its own.
"The Pacific Patrol Boat Program ... is a huge commitment which is gratefully received and provides assets and builds skills," he said.
"But rather than seeing these efforts as a role already performed, we should see them instead as a guide to how much further down this path we could go. And the important point to understand is that it is actually in our national interest to walk this path as far as the Pacific island countries are willing to walk it with us."
Marles also warned that without a stronger relationship with these Pacific countries, they may seek relationships with other nations such as China.
In recent years, China established its One Belt and One Road initiative, which offers infrastructure building to its neighbouring countries in the Pacific, an initiative that analysts have said is part of China's attempts to gain political leverage.
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"Pacific island countries have choices about with whom they partner. That we will always be the partner of choice is not a proposition we can take for granted," the Labor MP said.
Improving Australia's relationship with these countries will also act as a strong reminder for the US to continue following Australia's lead in the region, Marles said.
"Across the very broad bilateral relationship that we enjoy with the United States, mostly and understandably, it is America that takes the lead," he argued.
"Yet in one area the US unambiguously follows us: the Pacific.
"We must stop seeing the Pacific as a niche area of our foreign and security policy. Precisely because the Pacific goes to our key relationships with the likes of the United States and China, it is as centrally important to our world view as is the United States and China."