By the time Canberra realised the national security failure on our doorstep in around 2017, it was a case of too little, too late.
The multi-billion-dollar Pacific “Step Up”, which includes the $2 billion Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific (AIFFP), has shown dividends. Australia is providing a genuine alternative to funding large infrastructure projects in the region without saddling countries with debt.
But just as we were stepping back up in 2019, both the Solomon Islands and Kiribati switched their allegiance from Taiwan to Beijing.
Australia’s total diplomatic and development contribution is still significantly lower than similar countries. It sits at about 1.3 per cent of the federal budget, well behind comparable countries such as Canada (1.9 per cent) and the Netherlands (4.3 per cent).
The federal government spends 10 times more on defence than it does on foreign aid, compared to a defence-to-aid spending ratio of five-to-one in 2013-14.
Morrison deserves credit for his genuine engagement with the Pacific and his government’s commitments under the Step Up program, which includes a multi-billion-dollar undersea cable for the Solomon Islands.
On the immediate effect at the pact the government was also all over the shop. At a press conference on Wednesday Morrison said it was a “false claim” to suggest the deal would result in a Chinese base being built in the Solomons.
But Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce said just the opposite: “They’ve decided to have a pact with China – dual purpose – which means China is able, if they follow this through, to set up a military base there….That’s a very bad day for Australia. We don’t want our own little Cuba off our coast.”
But we do need to be careful not to extrapolate too much from the security deal when assessing the rest of the region.
Nearly all Pacific island nations are just as alarmed as Australia over the news.
Morrison on Wednesday suggested other Pacific island nations were facing the same level of coercion from China but had not wielded.
“Do you think there’s not the same pressure going on in Papua New Guinea that there is in the Solomon Islands? Of course there is. You don’t think the same pressure is… in Fiji or Samoa?”
Let’s hope Morrison is right, and the Solomons is an outlier.
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