Australia and New Zealand have a golden opportunity to build stronger ties in the Pacific – but will they take it?

Joanne Wallis, University of Adelaide; Anna Powles, Massey University, and Solstice Middleby, University of Adelaide

The Pacific Islands Forum leaders’ meeting hosted by Fiji last week was the first to be held in person since 2019. Following a particularly challenging period, it was an opportunity for leaders to reconnect and agree to the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent. This document provides a blueprint for enhanced collaboration in the region over the next three decades.

Forum leaders’ meetings are critically important opportunities for Australia and New Zealand to deepen relationships and capitalise on being the only two non-island state members at the regional table.

This was even more visible this year, as the forum did not hold the traditional post-forum partners’ dialogue. This meant dialogue partners such as the US and China did not have the usual formal opportunity to meet forum leaders in Suva, although US Vice President Kamala Harris addressed forum members virtually.

Has Australia’s role in the Pacific changed?

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese brought a refreshing change in Australia’s tone and attitude to the forum. He was aided by a policy platform that includes action on climate change, as well as improvements to Australia’s labour mobility schemes and opportunities for permanent migration to Australia for Pacific people.

Perhaps buoyed by his experience, when asked whether China’s influence in the Pacific had been weakened, Albanese responded that “Australia’s influence – which historically has been a country of great significance to the region – has been enhanced by this meeting”.

But the Australian government should be wary about overestimating any increase in its influence. Albanese will soon realise there is an important difference between presence and influence. It will take much more than a few days in Suva to achieve the latter.

While the Albanese government is still finding its feet, its commitments on climate change are insufficiently ambitious and undermined by plans to approve more coal and gas projects.

Conscious of the need to rebuild unity after a challenging few years, this meeting was not designed to push Australia, or indeed any other member, too hard. But the pressure on Australia will remain.

Having been in office since 2017, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is a familiar face at forum meetings. But while Ardern and her foreign minister, Nanaia Mahuta, have travelled extensively to other parts of the globe over the past year, their presence in the Pacific has been light. Although the meeting was an opportunity for them to reconnect in the Pacific, there is no indication they intend to build on that momentum by increasing their engagement with the region.

Ardern may discover that her catchphrase of New Zealand “being in and of the Pacific” is no match for physically showing up. And physically showing up is no match for real connection.

Indeed, during the forum leaders’ week there were multiple occasions when Ardern and Albanese (or at least Mahuta and Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong) should have shown up to listen and learn about Pacific perspectives on critical regional issues, such as the historic signing of an agreement on the maritime border between Fiji and Solomon Islands.

Gaps in the trans-Tasman alliance

The forum also highlighted widening gaps in the trans-Tasman alliance. The Albanese government’s proposals concerning Australia’s Pacific policy approach stand in contrast to the Ardern government’s lack of concrete policy. The Ardern government will need to address this if it is to remain a credible partner to the Pacific – and a credible ally of Australia’s.

The shift brought about by the Albanese government has altered the dynamics within the forum, and the Pacific more broadly. New Zealand can no longer rely on looking good in comparison to Australia. This suggests the Ardern government needs to review its approach in the Pacific. The rhetoric of New Zealand’s “Pacific identity” needs to involve deeper engagement that reflects Ardern’s call for a “family first” approach.

The announcement of the Partners in the Blue Pacific initiative in Washington last month suggests other partners seeking to be more involved in the region are likely to apply pressure to both Australia and New Zealand to clarify their regional roles.

As the only forum members that are part of this initiative, Australia and New Zealand have an important role in ensuring its commitment to “forum centrality” plays out in practice. In the first instance, they should ask difficult questions about why the initiative was done for, rather than with, the Pacific, and is operating outside the forum’s existing mechanisms for partner co-ordination.

Alongside this, China is likely to continue seeking support for its regional security and economic pact, putting more pressure on Pacific regionalism.

An Albanese-Ardern alliance could play an important role in facilitating Pacific-led regionalism and working with Pacific states to mediate the interest of outside partners. The next few months will tell us whether they recognise and take advantage of this opportunity.The Conversation

Tagged in The Conversation, policy matters