ANU: Window of opportunity closing amid the China alternative

We need to put more resources into training Pacific talent, both in country and through scholarships.

The window of opportunity for Australia to play a greater role in the Pacific is closing if the next government fails to change its diplomatic approach, according to a regional expert from The Australian National University (ANU).

Senior Fellow at the ANU Department of Pacific Affairs Associate Professor Graeme Smith said security deals like the newly-minted one between China and Solomon Islands will be more common in coming years.

Associate Professor Smith is also the editor of a new book that looks at the broader themes of China’s rising influence in the region, and said the clock is already ticking on how a new Australian government will react.

“We need to broaden our Pacific labour mobility scheme beyond agriculture and create pathways to citizenship – if Australia becomes a more Pacific country, we will be a more credible partner in the region,” he said.

“We need to have a credible policy for addressing climate change. We need to put more resources into training Pacific talent, both in country and through scholarships.”

Associate Professor Smith said the Solomon Islands and China security deal has the potential to expose flaws in Solomon Islands’ governance systems.

“If there is a flaw in your system, be it money in politics, lax enforcement of building codes, or corruption around accessing land for development, then large actors like China will find a way to exploit them,” he said.

“The security deal also highlights the legitimate determination of many national leaders to pursue an independent foreign policy, and however much we may disagree with these choices, hysterical reactions from Australian politicians and the media tend to reinforce these choices.”

While China’s influence in the Pacific has renewed the focus of geopolitics during the Australian election campaign, the timely new book features 17 leading scholars based in Solomon Islands, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste, Australia, New Zealand, the United States and China.

The China Alternative: Changing Regional Order in the Pacific Islands (ANU Press 2021) is edited by Associate Professor Smith and Terence Wesley-Smith (Center for Pacific Islands Studies, University of Hawai`i), and launches Wednesday, 25 May.

Through its chapters, the book explores China’s impact in the Pacific and analyses key dimensions of the strategic, economic and diplomatic implications for regional actors.

The book also looks at key dimensions of China’s Pacific engagement, including Beijing’s programs of aid and diplomacy, as well as the massive investments of the Belt and Road Initiative.

Associate Professor Greg Fry, from the ANU Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, calls it a “must-read” for all students and practitioners interested in understanding the new geopolitics of the Pacific.

“The book inspires the traditional partners to think more deeply,” he said.

“It assembles a stellar cast of Pacific scholars to deeply explore the impact of the changing role of China on the Pacific islands region.

“Significantly, it also puts the Pacific island states at the centre of this analysis by questioning the collective agency they might have in this rapidly evolving strategic context.”