Ian Kemish AM is a former senior Australian diplomat. His Government career included service as Charge d’Affaires in Laos, Head of the Consular and South East Asia divisions of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Head of the Prime Minister’s International Division, Ambassador to Germany and High Commissioner to Papua New Guinea. He was awarded membership of the Order of Australia for his leadership of Australia’s response to the 2002 Bali bombings. He joined the private sector in 2013, taking on different leadership roles in the internationally focused resource sector, located in Washington and then Melbourne. He now divides his time between strategic advisory work, international development and commentary, with a focus on the Indo-Pacific.
The annual Australia-UK Ministerial Consultations (AUKMIN) are taking place in London this week, bringing UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly and Defence Secretary Ben Wallace together with their respective Australian counterparts, Penny Wong and Richard Marles. The two Australian ministers have also visited Paris and Brussels during their travels, and Marles will head on to Washington after London. The touring Australians and their various allied counterparts will be keen to exchange notes on the separate but linked threats posed by autocratic regimes in Moscow and Beijing to regional security in Europe and the Indo-Pacific.
The discussion about Europe is likely to focus on direct military assistance for Ukraine (Australia has already provided about A$ 500 million in materiel and other military support, along with energy and other supplies). In the Indo-Pacific, where tensions are simmering but open conflict has not yet eventuated, the discussion will likely focus more on how the democratic powers can work together to build robust collaborative security arrangements to contain China.
There are several joint strategic initiatives underway in the Indo-Pacific by countries which share a commitment to the rules-based international order.
Indeed, in the lead-up to AUKMIN the chair of the UK Defence Select Committee, Tobias Ellwood, has even raised the prospect of a “NATO-lite” arrangement to help guarantee Indo-Pacific security – bringing the two Asian members of the Quadrilateral Alliance (”the Quad”), Japan and India, together with AUKUS alliance participants Australia, the UK and the US. This seems unlikely to eventuate in the short term, but it reveals an interesting line of thinking.
External partners tend to focus their strategic thinking in the Indo-Pacific on Asian trouble spots from Taiwan to the South China Sea and Kashmir. But there is also a strong case for the democratic powers to step up their security engagement across the vast, lightly populated Pacific Ocean. Developments in the Pacific are of direct interest to the global community. At the most fundamental level, the region’s experience of climate change will signal what is ahead for the rest of the world. And in geo-strategic terms, China’s growing activity in the region portends significant changes in the global strategic balance.
Beijing’s engagement with each of the standing military forces in the Pacific has undoubtedly increased, and there is no reason to believe that the assertive maritime strategies that have underpinned China’s approach in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea are not also guiding Beijing’s approach in the Pacific. Greater regional security ties with Beijing, coupled with targeted Chinese political engagement and concessional finance, may over time help China establish a naval base in the region to support a blue water navy extending its global reach.
Under Prime Minister Albanese the Australian Government has recovered a great deal of ground in the Pacific since the serious setback in early 2022, when China managed to convince the prime minister of Solomon Islands to sign a defence agreement. The new Australian administration’s more progressive approach to climate change has helped, and this has been supported by an intensive round of diplomacy and development initiatives by the new batch of Australian ministers. Papua New Guinea has now committed to a formal bilateral defence treaty with Australia, and newly elected Fijian prime minister Rabuka has made it very clear that his affections lie with “traditional partners” like Australia and New Zealand.
But the democratic powers cannot simply leave it to Australia, their leading “standard bearer” in the Pacific, to support and engage the region amidst an increasingly difficult struggle between two value systems. For its part, Australia has always worked willingly in the region with New Zealand, which remains a modest but useful partner in the Pacific – particularly in the Polynesian sub-region given its links there. But there is a new openness in Canberra to working in alliance with like-minded others from further afield.
In recent years there has been a substantial and encouraging uptick in defence and security collaboration between the members of the Quad - Japan, India Australia and the United States. This has a largely maritime focus, with members refreshing their collaboration late last year with joint exercises in the Philippine Sea, one of the gateways between the Indian and Pacific oceans. The alliance seems to be picking up momentum, notwithstanding the natural differences between its members’ strategic cultures. India, in particular, arguably the most exposed to Chinese retaliation, will be determined to maintain strategic autonomy.
Each of the Quad partners have been working in parallel to strengthen their bilateral security and development links with each other. The India-Japan relationship is one of the strongest strands in all this, and each member has its own substantial strategic relationship with the US. Over the last year, Australia and Japan have signed a bilateral security partnership and an agreement allowing their forces reciprocal access to each other’s military bases and ports. Japan’s commitment to development support in the Pacific – bilaterally, and through the Asian Development Bank – has earnt it considerable respect among the Pacific Island Countries (PICs).
The United States has recently swung in with some additional support for the PICs, announcing the first ever US-Pacific partnership strategy in September and convincing Pacific leaders to embrace an associated framework agreement underpinned by a significant increase in US development expenditure. This followed announcements earlier in the year that Washington would move to expand its diplomatic footprint in the region, establishing missions in Solomon Islands, Tonga, and Kiribati. Each of these countries have, to some extent, fallen into China’s embrace in recent years.
India, too, can make an important contribution by lending its strategic weight to the democratic effort in the Pacific. The inspirational value, to the Pacific Island nations, of India’s development story and its status as a major Indo-Pacific power is not to be underestimated. If people-to-people links provide Australia with a solid platform for positive engagement with the Pacific then the same is true of India, with its strong diaspora in the region, focused on the longstanding community in Fiji but extending to more modern waves of migration.
And then there’s the UK, which has recognised, through its “Indo-Pacific Tilt” that security and prosperity in the region are indivisible from that of Europe. More needs to be done to bring this policy platform to life, but the UK can already point to very substantial people-to-people links with the Indo-Pacific, which is home to 1.7 million UK citizens. In recent times British diplomacy has prioritised trade agreements with Southeast Asian countries and secured dialogue partner status for the UK with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. And the UK has also stepped up its diplomatic, military and development engagement with the PICs from a previously modest base.
There is plenty of scope to build on these new networks and partnerships to deepen collaboration with the region and develop a more robust framework to guarantee security in the Pacific. It’s vital, though, that others feel consulted and respected as the democratic powers strengthen this engagement.
The unveiling of the AUKUS partnership in September 2021 provides a salutary tale. AUKUS remains an important initiative to strengthen ties between Canberra, London, and Washington in the region, but the public focus quickly zeroed in on a failure of communication at the time of the announcement with France. This important Pacific power – with more than a million citizens, three territories and a military presence in the region – was affronted by Australia’s abrupt abandonment, in its rush to join the new alliance, of a submarine deal with French industry.
But France wasn’t the only one to be surprised. The countries of the Pacific themselves were not pleased about the announcement of substantial upgrades in defence expenditure in the Pacific, and particularly the headline initiative that Australian nuclear-powered submarines would be deployed in their region. Some of these countries had experienced their own traumas with nuclear testing in the 20th century, and they lashed out. Then Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama said that Australia and its AUKUS partners should shift their focus to what the Pacific sees as the highest priority. “If we can spend trillions on missiles drones, and nuclear submarines” he said, “we can fund climate action”. Leaders from across the region said that it would have been nice to be consulted, or at least forewarned.
AUKUS may become an important element in broader, formal cooperative security arrangements between major democratic powers who share an interest in the region. But the story of its birth is a useful reminder that if the aim is to build influence in the Pacific and push back on China, it’s important to recognise that people live there, and to respect their perspective.