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Bipartisan Pacific tour a master stroke

By Anthony Bergin and Jeffrey Wall

Last week Foreign Minister Penny Wong and Pacific Minister Pat Conroy visited Vanuatu, the Federated States of Micronesia and Palau. Wong was accompanied by opposition foreign affairs spokesman Simon Birmingham and Pacific spokesman Michael McCormack.

The most significant part of the tour was Vanuatu. After PNG it’s our closest island neighbour. Our $46m a year in aid is modest. Vanuatu has been a major target for China because of its strategic location. There were reports China would seek to build a naval base. China had been seeking a military-security pact with Vanuatu. The former Vanuatu government was seriously considering it.

Australia was slow to respond. We eventually agreed to expand the Mala Base Wharf, which was opened by Wong during her visit. Last week the two countries signed a comprehensive security co-operation agreement. In contrast to the security deal signed by Solomon Islands with China, this one will be publicly available. It’s a huge win for Australia. China has suffered a serious setback.

We should build on this development by engaging with Australian business on how it can play a greater role in the country. We should, for example, look at how we can support Vanuatu’s tourism industry and encourage more Australians to holiday there. Having Vanuatu and PNG (where we’re negotiating a security pact) on our side further isolates the Sogavare government. Hopefully we’ll further strengthen ties with the new Fiji government. 

The Foreign Minister’s delegation also visited Palau. What Palau lacks in size it makes up for in strategic importance: as the island furthest to the west in the second island chain between the US and mainland Asia, it stands to play a critical logistical role in any military conflict that may occur in the region. It’s one of just 13 nations that recognise Taiwan. 

Beijing has sought to pry Palau away from the US and its democratic partners. Wong’s visit was an important reminder that, in this increasingly contested region, every island matters.

During her visit it was announced that at the end of February there will be flights to Palau from Brisbane. It’s only about 50 years since Fiji acquired its first international standard hotel and the real tourist growth began only 30 or so years ago. These things don’t happen overnight. Palau has quite good tourist accommodation and other tourism infrastructure. But there will need to be work to encourage Australians to visit the country. An Australian business mission should take advantage of the new flight.

Australia should also continue to increase our participation in discussions with the US and Japan about supporting Palau’s new National Security Coordination Office, ensuring Palau can protect itself from those who would try to take advantage of a small country or abuse the goodwill of a proud Pacific culture.

Micronesia’s strategic significance is rising so it was useful the Foreign Minister and her delegation also briefly visited the Federated States of Micronesia. Micronesia has been used in the past as an invasion route to PNG and an attack route to Australia. It’s an important strategic axis where the interests of China, Japan, Taiwan and the US, as well as several Southeast Asian countries, intersect.

What was impressive was the warmth of the reception Wong received during her four-day tour. The nature of the delegation was a master stroke: the island hosts saw a parliament working how it should on policies on our region. Bipartisan and united.

Anthony Albanese will visit PNG in January. He should follow this by inviting the leaders of our Pacific neighbours to a summit in Australia. They could meet the opposition and other MPs and senators.

We should build on Wong’s tour by strengthening engagement with the private sectors in Australia and the islands to identify the most feasible opportunities for growth. The most obvious economic opportunity is in tourism. Facilitating an increase in interactions between Australians and our island neighbours is a proven way of helping to maintain a favourable political alignment at the government level.

The bipartisan Pacific Islands trip was a very good week for Australia in our near abroad.

Originally published by: The Australian on 19 Dec 2022