The Pacific: why it matters

Beautiful, clear blue waters spread out across the horizon. The foreground of the image is full of thick, lush forest and palm trees. The sky is clear with some fluffy white clouds.

Image: Marek Okon/Unsplash

Image: Marek Okon/Unsplash

Stability and prosperity in the Pacific have long been stated as among Australia’s top foreign policy priorities. But many Australians do not fully understand the region.

The issues currently confronting the Pacific are of global significance, and it is in Australia’s own economic and political interests for the region to succeed. Yet, often we make the mistake of not properly engaging with Pacific as valued partners contributing to a shared and prosperous future.

At our most recent ChangeMakers event, we heard from three UQ graduates working in development, sustainability and national security to discuss why our Pacific neighbours are so important.

Coral Pasisi

Senior Advisor to the Director General of SPC, member of the Climate Security Experts Network and the Global Strategic Advisory Board on Climate Security and Foresight, and former Regional Advisor to the Green Climate Fund’s Pacific Regional Advisor and private consultant.

We have much in common – our region is a vast, blue Pacific continent, with 96 per cent ocean and providing half of the oxygen required for human existence.

Our 24 countries and territories – including Australia – have jurisdictional responsibility for a combined 30 per cent of the world’s exclusive economic zones.

We share the governance of this great resource, as well as responsibility for its health and longevity.

Since 2009, Pacific leaders have stated in their annual communiqué that climate change is the single greatest threat to the region. Its consequences are manifesting in several ways across the Pacific, the combination of which is very troubling.

One is jurisdictional certainty: as sea levels rise, the integrity of exclusive economic zones (EEZs) are at risk for Pacific nations. Base points for defining these are often features like shoals or small sandy keys, which are vulnerable to climate change and sea level rise. As a result, there is uncertainty around whether countries might lose those EEZs as base points erode. There isn't any greater threat than the potential loss of one’s entire nation or jurisdiction as established under international law.

Food security and productivity is also a major risk. Long before islands go underwater, they become so unproductive through saltwater intrusion and coastal erosion that they can no longer sustain Pacific communities, more than 50 per cent of which rely on coastal food sources.

Climate change is also threatening our blue economy. Many Pacific nations derive a significant portion of their revenue from tuna fishing licences: we produce over 50 per cent of the world’s tuna supply and manage the last sustainably harvested tuna stocks left in the world. Climate change threatens the migratory paths of these stocks, moving them into the high seas, where – ironically – the countries producing the most greenhouse gases will source them for free.

There is also the increased frequency and intensity of disasters, which Australia is very familiar with. Pacific islands are simultaneously the most exposed and the least insured in the world against these events. The capacity to recover from these compounding disasters is limited, and every event sends states further into debt. 

There are many other risks, including displacement and forced migration, which are happening across the region.

Already, some of our island nations have assessed that the annual expenditure of their governments on climate change is around 20 per cent of the national budget – imagine spending 20 per cent of Australia’s budget on an issue you did not create.

This is the reality for Pacific nations. Proposals to address climate challenges (called climate financing) require complex project proposals and copious amounts of data communities often don’t have. If they are finally approved three to five years later, the limited in-country capacity to implement the project has often moved on, or the need has changed.

This is a very painful and frustrating cycle. Climate financing needs to not be project-based, but injected directly into a country’s own national systems (like budgetary support or trust funds).

When we talk about capacity building, we have to move beyond just training – it has to be about capacity supplementation and retention for small countries. Climate financing should be used to ensure we have sufficient people on the ground to understand, plan for and respond to climate change in a sustainable way.  

The threats facing the Pacific are threats facing us all. We have to work together – there is no choice. Even with our combined capabilities and resources, we may still fall short of addressing these challenges; but without our collective efforts, we will certainly have very little change of success.

A headshot of Coral Pasisi, wearing grey pearls and a pink flower tucked behind her right ear, in a green top. She is smiling at the camera.

Coral Pasisi (Graduate Certificate in Development Planning '99).

Coral Pasisi (Graduate Certificate in Development Planning '99).

A headshot of Ann Sherry, wearing a dark blue blazer and pearl jewellery and smiling into the camera.

Ann Sherry AO (Bachelor of Arts '78, Doctor of Business (honoris causa) '14).

Ann Sherry AO (Bachelor of Arts '78, Doctor of Business (honoris causa) '14).

Ann Sherry AO

Chair of UNICEF Australia, Chair of Enero Group, various non-executive roles and former Chair and CEO of Carnival Australia.

As Australians, we need to rethink how we understand our relationship with the Pacific.

It is a relationship that has been ambivalent for over a century. Here in Queensland, we have a dark history of ‘blackbirding’ (the forcible removal of Pacific Islanders form their homes to work on plantations in Queensland). More broadly, Australians often see the region as ‘underdeveloped’ – a destination for Australian aid – as well as a tax haven or as a point from which illegal drugs are trafficked into Australia. In the worst cases, I still sometimes see the phrase 'primitive' used.

Yet throughout my life and career working in or with the Pacific, I have seen the most astonishing things. Pacific Islander peoples hold a care for the sea and an understanding of the environment that is deeply rooted in their cultural norms, in a similar way as it is in Indigenous Australian culture, which we tend to undervalue as well.

There is a cultural integrity that exists in so few places in the world, and it’s right at our doorstep – yet many of us fail to see it.

Australians (like many people around the world) at times glorify cultures selectively. We wouldn’t think twice about travelling to the mountains of Peru to enjoy a cultural immersion with the local Indigenous peoples. We cross the world to Bhutan and marvel at the local practices and history.

Yet this richness is something we ignore in our own neighbours.

There are strong and deep-rooted threads that bind us to the Pacific. The reefs we see as our own are part of a huge network of ecosystems reaching vastly across the entire Pacific region. As whales arrive in Australian waters, we forget they birth in the clear waters in Tonga; many of the birds we see as ours rely on migratory pathways through the Pacific.

The beauty of the oceans and its wildlife we so proudly claim as ours are not ours alone, but part of a shared custodianship of one of the most beautiful natural regions on the planet. They belong to us all.

The Pacific Islands are incredibly important partners for Australia and, while many political and business leaders recognise this, more Australians need to peel back the historical biases and stereotypes that blinker us to the value of the region. We gravitate to what is familiar: our euro-centric mindset is borne by colonial legacies of the past and a sense of cultural proximity, yet Europe is quite literally on the other side of the world.

We need to explore ourselves and ask the question: why?

The answers are often difficult, but they are important answers to find. They are important to fully understand the value of our Pacific neighbours and our value to them.

Ian Kemish AM

Former senior Australian diplomat, High Commissioner to Papua New Guinea, Ambassador to Germany and international advisor to the Prime Minister. Currently regional representative for the Global Partnership for Education and Chair of the Kokoda Track Foundation, and Adjunct Associate Professor at UQ.

I am a proud member of the ‘tribe’ of thousands of Australians who carry a lifelong sense of connection with the Pacific nations. I grew up in Papua New Guinea (PNG) and have spent much of my career working across the Pacific, including as Australian High Commissioner to PNG.

And yet at a broader level, we Australians sometimes seem to have a ‘Pacific blind spot’. Many fail to see the critical importance of our relationship with the region. It took the arrival of COVID-19 on Pacific shores to remind some of us how close our next-door neighbours really are. There’s less than four kilometres separating PNG from Australia at the nearest point, and Pacific island capitals like Port Moresby, Honiara, Noumea and Port Vila are closer to Brisbane than some other parts of Queensland are.

Much is made of how great power rivalries are manifesting themselves in the region. The Pacific is undoubtedly important for Australia in terms of national security, and there is a perception that China is extending its influence in the region through concessional finance, military cooperation, investment and state visits.

However, as the Lowy Institute has shown, Chinese investment in the region’s development remains much lower than that of Australia. China has failed to use the opportunity of the pandemic to show commitment to the region through meaningful health or economic support. Pacific Islander culture also does not lend itself well to the centralised, top-down approach of Beijing, which has caused significant frustration for Chinese leaders. Australia’s personal, cultural and economic links with the region are not to be underestimated.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the Australian Government’s Pacific “Step-Up” foreign policy initiative in 2018 just as Chinese investment was ramping up in PNG in the lead up to the APEC Summit in the state’s capital. Other democracies are also stepping up. But I believe that we do western policymakers a disservice if we attribute all of this to a desire to limit China’s expansion in the region. There is a deeper recognition that the overall security of the region we inhabit, and indeed the world, will be determined by how the Pacific manages the existential pressures of the current era – demographic, developmental and climatic.

Many of our Pacific neighbours are struggling right now. Some have had serious encounters with COVID-19, and the region is one of the most at risk from the collateral economic damage resulting from the pandemic. By December 2020, the World Bank had projected a double-digit GDP contraction for Fiji, Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu; the Asian Development Bank had suggested the region would collectively be worse off than the 4.3 per cent GDP decline forecasted in July 2020 (albeit with a predicted 1.3 per cent recovery in 2021).

I think Australia has responded well in the current phase, including through support for the COVAX rollout, but we need to lift our horizons and think about the longer-term consequences. In particular, COVID-19 has brought to the fore a looming crisis in children’s education, which will have serious national ramifications over time. This has had a disproportionate impact on girls education across the region, which is so crucial to development in lower income countries. A substantial investment in education will be vital for the region’s post-COVID-19 recovery.

What the Pacific needs is genuine partnership. While Australia does not escape criticism in the region on issues like climate change and labour market access, its longstanding and comprehensive investment in the Pacific extends well beyond concessional finance and occasional infrastructure to include health, education, disaster relief and election support. This speaks to a strong and sincere partnership between Australia and the sovereign Pacific.

A headshot of Ian Kemish, wearing a pink shirt with a yellow and white tie, smiling into the camera.

Adjunct Associate Professor Ian Kemish (Bachelor of Arts '82, Bachelor of Arts (Honours) '87).

Adjunct Associate Professor Ian Kemish (Bachelor of Arts '82, Bachelor of Arts (Honours) '87).

Did you watch our most recent ChangeMakers event? Catch-up on the discussion on our event page.