Opinion: More of the same is not the answer to building influence in the Pacific

Following almost a decade of geopolitically driven “stepping up”, ‘uplifting’, ‘resetting’, and “stepping up across the board”, it appears that Western governments believe more of the same will achieve greater influence in the Pacific. Even New Zealand and Australia, who have recently sought to articulate something different, remain focused on implementing more new initiatives, more aid, and increasing their presence. Critics have pointed to the structural inadequacies, lack of ambition, and even the failures of this approach, but its greatest limitation is that it remains underpinned by two fundamental misconceptions.

The Pacific’s interests are not a proxy for the West’s interests

The first misconception is that Pacific interests are a proxy for Western interests. While all nations share an interest in promoting a peaceful, safe, and prosperous region, the independent Pacific states do not necessarily share the same geostrategic perspectives as the large powerful economies of the industrialised West.

Climate change reveals the clearest divergence. Most Western nations have been unable to take the necessary action on mitigation domestically. They continue to rely on non-renewable energy sources, with several countries issuing new exploration permits deemed necessary for their own energy needs. None have come forward to support the Pacific’s own fit-for-purpose regional instrument for climate adaptation finance — the Pacific Resilience Facility. Instead, they continue to support global instruments, such as the Green Climate Fund, which, even 12 years into operation, is still working with Pacific nations on ‘readiness projects’.

While all nations share an interest in promoting a peaceful, safe, and prosperous region, the independent Pacific states do not necessarily share the same geostrategic perspectives as the large powerful economies of the industrialised West.

The strategic denial of China as a key economic partner is another example. Independent Pacific states fiercely guard their sovereignty and their right to choose both security and economic partners. As the West seeks to keep security arrangements “in the family”, it also securitises China’s lending and investments and in doing so seeks to deny the region an economic partner it needs.

Recent Western-led initiatives such as AUKUS, the Indo-Pacific Strategy, and the Partners in the Blue Pacific represent a third example of divergence. These initiatives all deliver a fait accompli to the Pacific without consultation. They disregard the Pacific’s own regional processes and perspectives while claiming to be working in the Pacific ‘family’s’ interests and to be supporting Pacific priorities more effectively and efficiently.

Western aid is not necessarily superior to Chinese assistance

The second misconception is that the West’s current model of foreign aid is both effective and superior to the approach taken by its rival, China. Over the last decade, Western governments have merged independent aid agencies into Foreign Affairs offices, resulting in less effective development assistance. Western agencies continue to operate through a deficit lens, thinking for rather than with the Pacific. Their bureaucratic processes are often impenetrable and many continue to over-promise. The Western aid paradigm itself has become akin to a giant Ponzi scheme, in which a significant proportion of aid is pocketed by aid intermediaries — international organisations, international financial institutions, and large multinational companies that consume each other in a battle for the ‘aid dollar’.

While China has established an independent aid agency, it also offers an alternative to foreign aid in the form of large complex commercial investments. These investments are not coordinated through the state but through an array of Chinese financiers with a mega-project bias that can be traced back to the way China developed itself. These financiers are willing to work in high-risk high-reward contexts and take on complex projects that no one else will. Western nations have been immersed in the aid business for so long that they may not even understand how these projects operate.

While Chinese-built infrastructure is criticised for being sub-standard, it remains the only real option. In fact, Chinese state-owned enterprises also implement much Western-financed infrastructure, with recent research showing they hold contracts for 80 per cent of the Asian Development Bank’s (ADB) infrastructure projects in Papua New Guinea. The ADB’s five largest donors are Japan, the United States, China, India, and Australia, with China as its largest lender.

Australia’s own attempts to become the partner of choice for financing infrastructure in the Pacific are yet to materialise. Instead of delivering on the transformative and long-lasting projects it promised in 2018, there are now only 12 approved projects in only five Pacific countries. Many other critiques levelled at China could also be levelled at the West. China is reproached for using lending and debt to create economic dependency, but the Pacific is already the most dependent region on earth — dependent on Western aid. China is often criticised for not using local Pacific labour, but Western aid projects do the same, overlooking local labour and agency for their own specialists who they pay between four and seven times more than their Pacific counterparts.

Time for a deeper rethink

Pacific leaders are well aware of the challenges and opportunities that the geopolitical environment presents, as pointed out here, here, and most recently here. Sadly, the geopolitical competition is not over who understands the region and its institutions best, who supports the best local efforts to deliver services, or who has the most ambitious climate mitigation policies. On its current trajectory, this competition looks set to escalate both militarisation and dependency in the Pacific.

Under the two fundamental misconceptions outlined above, continuing with more of the same is not the answer. Instead of giving rise to more influence, the West’s intentions will be increasingly questioned and their proxy seat at the Pacific Islands Forum ‘family table’ will grow less certain. Any tip in the scales of influence towards the West would more reasonably be attributed to Pacific disengagements from China rather than deliberate Western strategy.

Western nations, particularly Australia and New Zealand, have stood with the Pacific at critical moments, and they could again. But for now, it is time to leave these misconceptions in the past and move forward with a more honest and mature dialogue, and a radical rethink of Western approaches to foreign aid.

Meg Taylor DBE was the first female Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum and the founding Vice President of the Office of the Compliance Advisor Ombudsman for the International Finance Corporation. She currently serves on the Board of Nambawan Super and the Papua New Guinea Sustainable Development Program, is a member of the International Advisory Panel for the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and is an Advisor to the Vanuatu government on its application to the International Court of Justice on Climate Change.

Soli Middleby was an Australian diplomat to the Pacific for 15 years and served as the Chief Executive Officer of the Australia Pacific Training Coalition. She is currently a PhD candidate in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Adelaide and an accredited Partnership Broker.