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Tides that bind: Australia and Pacific leadership

Richard Marles has a passion for the Pacific. In his new book ‘Tides that bind: Australia in the Pacific’, the deputy leader of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) argues that Australia should play a greater leadership role in the islands’ region.

“Amongst policy thinkers in Canberra and around the country, I don’t think the Pacific plays a role as much is it should,” Marles says. “The essential thrust of the book is that the Pacific should take a much greater place in Australia’s world view.”

Elected to Parliament in 2007 and currently serving as deputy leader of the opposition, Marles is a key figure in the ALP’s Right faction in Victoria. In previous ALP governments, he has worked as Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs, Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs and Minister for Trade. In opposition, he has also been Shadow Minister for Immigration and Border Protection and Shadow Minister for Defence. In a future Labor government, he will play a significant role in developing policy around security, foreign affairs and regional relations, so his views on Australia and the Pacific are well worth watching.

Speaking with Islands Business on the release of his book, Marles argues that Australia has a key role in the region as the largest member of the Pacific Islands Forum: “By any measure, we are huge part of the Pacific. We’re the largest donor into the Pacific, we’ve got the biggest diplomatic footprint in the Pacific, we’ve got the most development resources in the Pacific of any country. For most of the Pacific, we’re the most important bilateral relationship they have, more important than the United States, more important than China.”

He is critical, however, that much of Australia’s bureaucracy doesn’t share this focus: “You can walk around Canberra and most people will struggle to name all the countries of the Pacific, let alone what their interests are, or what our interests are in that country.”

A decade ago, Marles travelled the region as Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Islands Affairs, a job now ranked at ministerial level in Scott Morrison’s Coalition government. Since 2015, however, there’s been a constant turnover of ministers in this portfolio (Ciobo, Fierravanti-Wells, Ruston, Hawke, Seselja). Marles argues this undercuts the relationship building that is a crucial part of working in the Pacific islands: “It’s very hard to do that through the prism of reading documents in Canberra. You’ve got to get out there, you’ve got to meet the people and get to know them – and all of that takes time.”

Published by Monash University, Marles’ book is part of a series dubbed “In the National Interest.” These short, polemical texts are primarily pitched to an Australian audience and understandably glide over many details in such a diverse region. However a Pacific audience will likely be interested in Marles’ views. Australia’s next federal elections are due before May 2022 and Marles will be a senior minister in any future Labor government, playing a significant role in decision-making around security, foreign affairs and regional relations.

It’s worth noting his passion for the Pacific, but also his vision that Australia must take the lead in the region, as a way of defining its standing on the international stage. In many ways, this book is more about Australia than the Pacific islands.

Falling in love with the exotic

Former Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has spoken about the way her interest in the Pacific was sparked as a teenager, through a pen pal relationship with a student in Papua New Guinea. For Richard Marles, a school trip to Papua New Guinea in 1984 was a seminal moment, changing his worldview of Australia’s place in the region. Even today, Marles stresses the importance of this trip.

“I was 16 and I felt like I was seeing the most exotic, unbelievable life experience that I had ever seen,” he tells me. “Coming up to 40 years later, that trip is as remarkable to me today as it was then as a 16-year-old. One of the impacts of that trip was I fell in love with the Pacific, with the way life was lived there, with the colour, with the celebration and joy of life, with its place in the world’s cultural heritage. We need to feel that as a nation.”

Throughout the book, Marles celebrates the exotic, like early explorers of the region: “the Pacific truly is a place of wonder”; “the dancing was elegant, captivating and joyful”; “human creativity and generosity are remarkable here”; “in Papua New Guinea, I can still remember my senses being overwhelmed by the vibrant colours, tribal sounds and rare smells.… an unimaginably exotic experience.”

However the text soon moves from ‘paradise’ to ‘paradise lost’. Marles reports that “I have seen refugee camps in Africa, slums in Bangladesh. But the worst human circumstances I have ever witnessed were on the islet of Betio, South Tarawa, Kiribati…Betio was worth fighting for in November 1943. Australia now needs to lead a new fight for Betio, and indeed all of the Pacific.”

Echoing past representations of the Pacific as the “hole in the doughnut” of Pacific Rim growth, Marles flags problems of corruption, the failure to achieve Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and ongoing economic challenges: “Development is occurring at a slower rate there compared with anywhere else. Soon, if nothing changes, the Pacific will be – in absolute terms – the least developed part of the globe….The performance of the Pacific in respect of the MDGs points to very deeply troubling future if nothing is done to change the trajectory of development in the region.”

It’s worth noting that many things are missing from his discussion of economic ties between Australia and neighbouring countries. For many people across Melanesia, contemporary debates about seasonal worker programs are underlaid by deep cultural memories of the colonial labour trade to Australia. But the book makes no mention of black birding, nor the fact that one of the first bills passed by the Australian federal parliament was the Pacific Islands Labourers Act of 1901, leading to the mass deportation of the “Kanakas” who built Australia’s sugar industry.

The PACER-Plus trade agreement – once a central pillar of Australia’s engagement with the region – doesn’t appear, possibly because Fiji and Papua New Guinea, the two largest island economies, have refused to sign up. In the midst of the pandemic, there is no discussion of contemporary debates between Australia and island neighbours on differences over WTO intellectual property waivers that would allow mass production of COVID-19 vaccines in developing countries.

A more striking weakness of the book, however, is its silence about initiatives being taken by Pacific governments and communities to respond to the global challenges of climate change, security and resource management.

As a regional initiative led by Australia, RAMSI gets a plug, “a powerful example of how Australian defence co-operation with the Pacific can dramatically improve the region’s security environment.” But where is the discussion of the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA), the Vessel Day Scheme, or the Higher Ambition Coalition? Even Marles’ references to MDGs seem dated, given a UN summit adopted new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in September 2015! Indeed, Pacific ambassadors played a crucial role in lobbying for SDG14 on the oceans and seas, and Fiji went on to co-host the first global conference on the oceans in 2017.

Leadership in the Pacific

This silence about Pacific agency is all the more striking – and worrying – because the central argument of ‘Tides that Bind’ is that Australia must step up its leadership role in the Pacific.

“Now, more than ever, the Pacific needs a champion,” Marles writes. “The Pacific desperately wants Australia to assume this role. The rest of the world expects it of us. We need to expect it of ourselves….We have the economy, governance, assets, affinity and international support to make a difference. The only issue standing in the way is our own willingness to embrace our international identity as leaders and in doing so fulfil our destiny.”

These echoes of “manifest destiny” may startle people with longer memories of the colonisation of the region.

Any discussion of leadership should highlight the way, over many years, Pacific governments and communities have been developing their own institutions and networks to advance local perspectives on the future of “the Blue Pacific.”

But the book is silent about the Alliance of Small Island States. There is no mention of the Pacific Small Island Developing States (PSIDS) ambassadors in New York, as they work through the Asia-Pacific group at the United Nations. No Nazhat Shameem Khan chairing the UN Human Rights Council, or Ambassador Peter Thomson, who serves as the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy on the Ocean, or the recent tenure of Tonga’s Fekita Utoikamanu as the UN High Representative for the Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States.

No acknowledgement too, that Australia often stands silent or lines up on the other side during global negotiations on loss and damage, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, self-determination and decolonisation, and many other issues.

Challenged on this issue, Marles is quick to deny that Australia should speak on behalf of the region. He argues instead that Canberra should use its extensive diplomatic resources and membership of the G20 to support Pacific agendas: “It’s about the posture that we have, about the humility we bring to the equation – or don’t – and we can get that wrong. But there is an enormous amount of goodwill towards Australia. People like us and I think they want us to be involved. When I talk about us being their champion, it is not about speaking for them, it’s about supporting their voice on the international stage. It’s about enabling the Pacific to tell its story itself. If we seek to remove their voice by assuming it, we’ll get it wrong.”

Climate policy

Towards the end of ‘Tides that Bind’, Marles calls for a “substantive agenda” for engagement with the Pacific, flagging six areas for action: climate policy, defence co-operation, labour mobility, development assistance, sport and Covid-19 response. However these sectors are already included in the ‘Pacific step-up’ initiated by the Turnbull and Morrison governments, and it’s unclear what a future ALP government would bring to the table that’s different.

Marles stresses that one core area for improvement is climate policy: “Unlocking all forms of engagement in the Pacific requires one critical key: Australia must have a credible position around action on climate change….Australia should be at the forefront of supporting the Pacific through its advocacy for action on climate change.” Criticising the divisions over climate policy in successive Coalition governments, he argues “the Morrison government… has patently failed the Pacific on the question of climate change.”

As a journalist reporting on the 2019 Pacific Islands Forum in Funafuti, I joined the press pack awaiting the end of the leaders’ retreat, as it dragged on for hours into the night. It was clear that Prime Minister Scott Morrison was doggedly defending Australia’s climate stance, as Forum leaders tried to craft the ‘Kainaki II Declaration for Urgent Climate Change Action Now.’

After the retreat, Fiji Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama made it clear that Australia’s Prime Minister – a first-time participant at the Forum – had angered his peers: “I thought Morrison was a good friend of mine; apparently not…The Prime Minister at one stage, because he was apparently [backed] into a corner by the leaders, came up with how much money Australia have been giving to the Pacific. He said: ‘I want that stated. I want that on the record.’ Very insulting.”

The 2019 Forum host, Prime Minister of Tuvalu Enele Sopoaga, didn’t mince words about this performance: “No matter how much money you put on the table, it doesn’t give you the excuse not to do the right thing – that is, cutting down your emissions, including not opening your coal mines.”

Richard Marles is happy to critique the failure of Coalition climate policy, but the Labor Party faces its own internal climate contradictions. Members of the ALP Right faction have publicly attacked the environment movement and supported the expansion of coal mining in New South Wales and Queensland. With an economy currently reliant on export of minerals, fossil fuels and agricultural products, many Australians criticise the mining industry’s “carbon capture” of policy-making on climate change. Beyond this, Australia has structural economic interests that are fundamentally different to its island neighbours, regardless of repeated pledges to support the Pacific and expand funding for climate adaptation.

Marles is clearly unapologetic about ongoing ALP support for the fossil fuel industry in Australia.

“Coal has played a really important part in our economy and will do so for a long time to come,” he tells me. “We certainly need to be making sure that we are validating and celebrating the role that coal miners and their families have played in the Australian economy and the role they will continue to play.” Any ALP climate policy will “recognise the place of coal within our economy for some time to come.”

“We need to be much better at promoting renewable energy and we need to have a credible pathway to zero net emissions by 2050,” he adds. “As a country, we need to be doing something about the proportion of emissions that we have per person. But since Tony Abbott became the leader of the Liberal party, this is a party that’s been riven with divisions about this question and can’t work out whether it should be seen as acting on climate change or not. It’s that, rather than the specific question of coal, that has undermined Australia’s position globally.”

Coming from a key figure in the alternative government of Australia, these arguments suggest that Forum Island Countries face an ongoing battle over climate policy. The notion that ongoing support for the mining and export of coal is not affecting Australia’s international reputation is a fundamental blind spot in the Canberra consensus. When even the Americans criticise Australia’s government for its failures in climate policy, you must know that there’s something wrong!

US alliance

This discussion about Australia’s role in the Pacific comes at a time of heightened US-China tension and geopolitical competition in the region.

Many Forum Island Countries are negotiating an awkward dance between their trade ties to China and their strategic and aid links to Western partners. In her interview with Islands Business last June, former Forum Secretary General Dame Meg Taylor noted: “Many of our countries have very clear foreign policies, that we are friends to all and enemies to none. How long can we maintain a neutral position, while protecting our own interests in terms of our trade and our resources?”

Through the Quad, the ANZUS alliance, Five Eyes and other strategic partnerships, Australia has moved closer to US Indo-Pacific strategy, exacerbating already strained relations with Beijing. But in a year that Australia, New Zealand and the United States will commemorate the 70th anniversary of the signing of the ANZUS Treaty, Richard Marles is an unabashed supporter of Australia’s alliance with United States.

“If we think about the relationship with United States, it’s the most important relationship that we have,” he tells me. “The Alliance is significant for us – perhaps more so than it’s ever been since the Second World War. The alliance with the United States is fundamental to our ability to do all those things and I am a huge supporter of our alliance with the United States. I see it as completely central to our foreign policy.”

In his book, Marles argues that the United States is looking for Australian leadership in the islands region: “There is one area where the United States invariably looks to Australia to take the lead: the Pacific. It is the space in a relationship where we have the opportunity to demonstrate how we behave as leaders, making it a crucial part of that relationship.”

“Australia’s reluctance to lead has left the United States with a sense of bewilderment,” he writes. “It is simply essential that Australia demonstrates leadership in the Pacific. This is first and foremost for the region’s sake, but a close secondary benefit is that it presents an opportunity to amplify and frame the mutuality of our US alliance… If, through the Pacific, we are able to better serve this mutuality, it will build the leadership side of Australia’s international personality.”

Dealing with China

Dating back to colonial times, Australia has maintained a policy of strategic denial in the Pacific, with the islands to the north and east of the continent perceived as a buffer zone against any strategic threat from the north. Today, in an era of trade restrictions, cyber warfare and competition for maritime resources, China is increasingly presented as a strategic threat in the Pacific islands. Successive Australian governments have strengthened alliances and strategic partnerships – with the United States, Japan, United Kingdom, France and India – to challenge and contain Chinese influence in the region (although they deny that containment is at the heart of Australian policy).

In ‘Tides that Bind’, Marles claims that simply expanding Australia’s Pacific engagement as a response to China – or any other third country – is a mistake.

“If Australia’s renewed interest in the Pacific is interpreted by the region as an attempt to keep China at bay, then it will be seen in a very cynical light,” he writes. “In basing our actions in the Pacific on an attempt to strategically deny China would be an historic mistake. Not only would this be detrimental to our regional relationships, it would be a failed course of action.”

He argues however that “a fundamental way of improving both the security and the prosperity of the Pacific is by maximising our defence co-operation” and recommends that “a greater program of exercises with the militaries of the region could be done in concert with New Zealand, United States and France.”

In 2019, leading Pacific academics Tarcisius Kabutaulaka and Katerina Teaiwa raised concern about the security agenda in Australia’s Pacific step-up, writing: “In the islands and amongst Pacific Studies colleagues, there is great concern about Australia’s securitisation of the region, evident in the deployment of military infrastructure and in the nature of research, policy and discussions about the region, particularly in Canberra…Canberra announced the establishment of a Pacific Security College to be hosted at the Australian National University and answerable directly to DFAT, aimed at bolstering security cooperation in the Pacific Islands. This is indicative of the securitisation of Pacific Studies, and of academic spaces and discourses about Oceania.”

Marles argues that this debate about Australia’s place in the region is vital for its international standing: “We are rightly judged, for good or for ill, by what we do in the Pacific. Whether we like it or not, it is a large part of our global calling card. So we’ll take it seriously and see that what we’re doing in the Pacific lives up to what we want to be as a nation.”

Richard Marles: Tides that bind: Australia in the Pacific (Monash University Publishing, August 2021)

Marles with former PNG foreign minister Rimbink Pato

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