Push for Aust-Pacific ‘web of friendship’

Australia needs to strengthen its partnerships with island nations in the Pacific in order to repair its standing in the region, a prominent foreign policy and security expert says.

Lowy Institute executive director Michael Fullilove on Wednesday told the National Press Club the new government would need to focus on statecraft, and had so far struck the right tone in the region.

“In recent years, our focus on southeast Asia got lost,” he said.

“Our universities used to be a cradle for the region’s brightest minds, but that has fallen away. We should use our universities and other educational institutions to create an Indo-Pacific web of friendship and influence.”

Dr Fullilove used the speech to argue for a three-dimensional foreign policy, built on the pillars of security partnerships with like-minded countries like the United States and United Kingdom, participating in international institutions and building the strongest possible relations with the countries in the Asia-Pacific.

The arc of Pacific nations to the north and east of Australia reaching from Papua New Guinea to Kiribati are of geostrategic importance due to their proximity.

“But if we treat our relationships with these countries as transactional, then we shouldn’t be surprised if we sometimes end up on the wrong side of the transaction,” Dr Fullilove said.

“The initialling of a security agreement between China and Solomon Islands, a country with which we have had the most intimate relations over the past two decades … showed the limits of our influence in that nation.”

The pace of ministerial visits – as well as making it easier for Pacific islanders to visit and study in Australia through university scholarships and training programs – should be employed to address to concerns of Pacific island nations, the executive director said.

“For too long, Australia has kept the Pacific at arm’s length. Embracing our Pacific family, showing them respect and listening to them is the smart thing to do and the right thing to do,” Dr Fullilove added.

“Stepping up our outreach to the region, though, will not be enough if Australia is unwilling to listen to regional perspectives and accord them real weight.”

Foreign Minister Penny Wong began her tenure with three Pacific visits within a month of taking office to strengthen regional ties by acknowledging the climate concerns of island nations off the back of Labor’s more ambitious emissions reductions target.

Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi also toured eight Pacific island nations as Beijing tried to push through a regional security deal following a similar bilateral agreement with Solomon Islands.

The Sino-Solomons security deal has raised national security concerns in Canberra at the prospect of a Chinese military base just over 2000 kilometres from Brisbane.

Both Honiara and Beijing have denied the possibility of a military base arising from the current security arrangement.

But Solomon Islands joined Fiji, Papua New Guinea joined 67 other nations in reaffirming the principle of non-interference with how China acts towards Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet.

“Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet related issues are China’s internal affairs that brook no interference by any external forces,” the joint statement reads.

The statement also took aim at the “politicisation of human rights and double standards”.

“We also oppose unfounded allegations against China out of political motivation and based on disinformation, and interference in China’s internal affairs under the pretext of human rights,” it reads.

Japan is pushing for a sideline meeting with Australia, New Zealand and South Korea at an upcoming NATO summit to discuss regional security concerns amid China’s expanding influence and aggression, according to local media reports.

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