Australia is the Pacific’s biggest aid donor, but there are tensions in the region. (Pool Photo via AP: Jason Oxenham)
They’re the custodians of what some Australian politicians rather patronisingly call “our backyard” — a vast swathe of the Pacific Ocean.
- Pacific Island leaders will want climate change to be front and centre
- They are likely to seek assurances that Australia will stick with the Paris agreement
- Australia will want to cement its position as the most significant presence in the region
Today leaders of Pacific Island nations will sit down together in Nauru, a speck of a country perched just south of the equator.
They’re there for the Pacific Islands Forum leaders’ meeting — the pre-eminent gathering of top dignitaries from islands large, small and tiny.
Australia is by far the biggest aid donor in the Pacific and has prided itself on its strategic pre-eminence as the region’s “partner of choice”.
But some quietly simmering tensions between Australia and its Pacific neighbours are starting to break into the open.
And while Canberra can still draw on big reservoirs of goodwill, the new Foreign Minister Marise Payne will need to walk a delicate tightrope in her first summit since taking the job.
What do Pacific leaders want to talk about?
Any rise in ocean levels could prove disastrous for some Pacific nations. (Pool Photo via AP: Jason Oxenham)
Climate change will be front and centre in today’s meeting.
Many Pacific Island leaders have been warning that the changing climate poses an existential threat to them.
Some of their nations barely poke their noses above the ocean — Tuvalu lists its highest point as 4.6 metres above sea level. Any rise in ocean levels could prove disastrous.
Perhaps more importantly, these tiny atolls are hugely vulnerable to cyclones which sometime rake the Pacific, and which scientists predict will become more intense as the climate changes.
All the leaders at PIF are set to sign a new security agreement called Biketawa Plus, which labels climate change the “greatest challenge” to the livelihoods and security of Pacific people.
But the timing is awkward for Senator Payne.
She’s become Foreign Minister courtesy of a coup provoked — in part — by internal turmoil over energy policy.
And while the Pacific might want to make deeper cuts to carbon emissions, some Coalition MPs are urging the new Prime Minister Scott Morrison to tear up the Paris agreement entirely.
The forum is the pre-eminent gathering of the Pacific’s top dignitaries. (Pool Photo via AP: Jason Oxenham)
Australia has already pledged hundreds of millions of dollars to help Pacific Island nations protect themselves against climate change, and may make further commitments at this meeting in Nauru.
But Pacific leaders are likely to seek assurances from Senator Payne that Australia will stick with the Paris agreement.
Some might even publicly demand that the Australian Government do more to cut emissions — although if that happens they’ll be careful to stick to diplomatic language.
What does Australia want to talk about?
Foreign Minister Marise Payne will need to walk a delicate tightrope in her first international summit. (Pool Photo via AP: Jason Oxenham)
The scale of Australia’s commitment to the Pacific is beyond question. It’s not just the largest aid donor in the region, it’s the largest investor as well.
But China has been making inroads, and Australian officials are wary of its strategic ambitions.
Senator Payne will want to use the forum to deepen cooperation on a vast range of fronts, cementing Australia’s position as the most significant presence in the Pacific.
Expect plenty of talk about how Australia and Pacific nations will do more together on border security, maritime surveillance and international crime.
Employment opportunities are also scarce in the region, and the Government is gradually opening up Australia’s labour market to workers from the Pacific who are hungry for work.
Yesterday Senator Payne announced three more nations — Samoa, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu — will join Australia’s Pacific Labour Scheme, allowing their citizens to fill jobs in rural and regional Australia.
But any attempt to subtly push back against China could meet resistance.
Port Moresby’s International Convention Centre, which was built though Chinese government aid. (ABC News: Catherine Graue)
Last week Samoa’s Prime Minister took a thinly veiled swipe at Australia, accusing “traditional partners” of taking a “patronising” attitude to Pacific nations which want to deal with China.
Jenny Hayward Jones from the Lowy Institute points out many Pacific leaders dismiss Canberra’s warnings about Beijing’s strategic intentions.
“Most seek out and welcome China’s interest in financing much-needed infrastructure and in funding assistance for health,” she wrote in the Interpreter.
And she argues Australia’s climate policies will make it harder to stop Pacific nations from drifting into China’s orbit.
“Australia wants to convince Pacific Island governments that they need to be more alert to the strategic threat posed by China,” she said.
“Pacific Island governments want to convince an Australian government with no policy on reducing carbon emissions that climate change is an existential threat to their populations, and the primary threat to regional security.”
What does no-one want to talk about?
Refugees are unlikely to feature on the agenda at all during the Nauru meeting. (Supplied: World Vision)
Several hundred refugees are still living in Nauru — some only a few hundred metres from the airport where leaders are landing.
Last month former workers on the island told the ABC that refugee children were struggling with deteriorating mental health, and were at risk of death.
Yesterday the media spotlight swung back on Nauru’s refugees when New Zealand reporter Barbara Dreaver was detained while trying to interview refugees on the island.
Human rights groups say the situation is intolerable, and are demanding PIF leaders put the issue front and centre when they meet today.
But almost no Pacific leaders want it on the agenda.
They are wary of being caught up in Australia’s charged domestic debate on refugee policy, and worry the PIF leaders’ meeting will be side-tracked from issues crucial to their future.
All eyes will be on New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who has repeatedly pressed Australia to allow some refugees on the island to resettle in her country.
Expect her to make that offer — once again — in Nauru.
But don’t expect Australia’s answer to change.