How Australia can use its power in the Pacific

The Pacific Step-up aimed to deliver better relationships for Australia in the region. In so doing, so the thinking went, Australia would push back against increasing Chinese government influence. But underneath the hood of the Pacific Step-up is largely the same old engine of Australian engagement with the Pacific – our aid program and contributions to regional security. It has been largely supply-driven.

Recent developments in Solomon Islands demonstrate that the Pacific Step-up has not delivered the influence we expected. This is because the step-up and ties with China deliver different things to Pacific countries.

A need for greater creativity

The step-up has undoubtedly contributed to Pacific countries’ health, gender, education, governance, disaster response and economic development priorities. But there are areas where Australia can be more creative, build new partnerships and expand the depth of these achievements.

Critically, the step-up has not delivered demonstrable economic impacts in comparison with China’s more visible contributions, including large-scale infrastructure and trade (China reportedly received more than half of all seafood, wood, and minerals exported from the region in 2019).

Economic security is among the most pressing concerns for the region, particularly after the hardship wrought by COVID-19. Pacific countries justifiably prioritise addressing basic needs and maintaining livelihoods – wealth inequality and youth bulges across the region put stresses on social cohesion and contribute to instability and tensions in communities.

New initiatives to create migration pathways into Australia, such as the proposed Pacific Engagement Visa, are a good start to strengthening both people-to-people links and delivering mutual economic benefit for Australia and the Pacific, for example through remittances.

Bolstering democratic institutions across the region helps to preserve the rights of Pacific communities and improve governance, resulting in better-quality public policy. Support for civil society strengthens local voices in their pursuit of political and social reforms in their local contexts.

Australia should look for opportunities to work with the US,…