Australia at risk of becoming an island as Pacific prospers

PORT VILA, Vanuatu — First it was the Pacific Century, then the Asia Pacific Century, then the Asian Century with a recent nod towards the Chinese Century. Now we are hearing of the Indo-Pacific Century. Hollywood to Bollywood, as one US military officer put it recently.

A great sweep of ocean from India to the eastern shores of California is the strategic big picture, we are told.

But while Australian policymakers debate every chess move by China, India and the US a more urgent Indo-Pacific shift, this time Indonesia versus the Pacific, is happening in two areas not even named in the Australian defence white paper 2013: West Papua and Melanesia.

This is because West Papua remains the territory that dare not speak its name in Australian policy circles. By all means talk about democracy and human rights in faraway places like Syria and Burma, where Australia has little or no influence, or closer to home, hammering Fiji with an unproductive policy.

But it appears Australians can say nothing about atrocities happening on Australia’s doorstep when Indonesia is involved. There is no way of putting this lightly: Australia continues to support Indonesian repression even as a growing body of international legal opinion labels Indonesian policy in West Papua a “slow moving genocide”. This is not trivial.

Melanesia – the region encompassing Australia’s nearest neighbours (Timor Leste, West Papua, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji and New Caledonia) – likewise is not even referenced by name in the defence white paper.

This is a telling omission, as it reflects Australian policy to deal with these countries bilaterally while not understanding the growing dynamic of sub-regionalism and the importance of the Melanesian Spearhead Group that holds these nations and peoples together and is increasingly setting common policy for them.

Modern multicultural Australia has forgotten the historic importance of the Pacific islands to Australia and needs its leaders to remind a new generation.

Barack Obama can declare himself a Pacific president, yet no Australian leader wants to claim our place in the region: former prime minister Julia Gillard was all about “the Asian Century”, throwing away cheaply the opportunity to be a middle-power Pacific nation in the Pacific Century.

Step back from the US-China thing for now, that will play out over decades. More pressing is that Australia needs to better balance relations with Indonesia and Melanesia.

Australia’s imperative is to embrace the Melanesian nations not as aid recipients and neighbours, but ultimately as family. It requires rhetoric, rolling out the red carpet and a new emphasis on soft-power diplomacy.

Australia will never be secure in Asia until it is secure and integrated with the island nations of the Pacific. It is time for Australian leaders to speak with vision and claim Australia’s Pacific destiny. Applying to join the MSG would be a start.

Full article: Australia at risk of becoming an island as Pacific prospers (Islands Business Magazine)

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