Australian Diplomacy in the Pacific Is Driven by Self-Interest

Australia’s Labor government is promising Pacific countries a new and friendlier era in diplomatic relations. But without challenging the vested interests and right-wing politics that dominate the region, these promises are altogether empty.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese (R) stands with Foreign Minister Penny Wong (L) at the door of their plane, May 23, 2022. (David Gray / Getty Images)

Australia’s newly elected Labor government has come to power in the midst of a struggle for power and influence in the Pacific. It is desperate to smooth over the diplomatic damage done by the previous government, which was seen as condescending and cruel by Pacific leaders.

Days after the election, new foreign minister Penny Wong was sent on an urgent trip to Fiji to try to defend Australia’s role in the Pacific region. Timed to coincide with Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi’s presence at a China-Pacific diplomatic summit, Wong’s main speech was filled with not-so-subtle allusions to battles over spheres of influence.

Wong argued that the climate crisis and strategic contest were the key challenges for the region, and placed the blame for deteriorating Australia-Pacific relations firmly on the previous government’s “disrespect.” Seeking to regain an Australian position of dominance in the region, she promised that her country is “a partner that doesn’t come with strings attached.” She also warned that there would be consequences for Pacific nations that make deals with rival regional powers.

Wong’s interviews and speeches indicate a shift to a gentler diplomatic tone under the new Labor government. But it would be wrong to view the last Coalition government as some exception to the rule that Australia is a kindly benefactor in the region that gives much and asks for nothing in return.

This idea is something of an easy sell to the Australian public, which in general knows little about its regional neighbors. But it rings less true for the people of Pacific Island nations and Timor-Leste, who have lived under Australian “tutelage” and found it wanting.

An Ambitious Subject

The nineteenth century saw a mad scramble between the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Spain, Japan, and the United States to claim island territory in the Pacific. Caught in these crosshairs, each island nation had its own horrific experience of war, seizure, annexation, and pillage. As the imperial powers squabbled over who was to have what, colonial Australia played a willing role as enforcer of British interests and expander of its own.

The Australian colonists were often more expansionist than the British Colonial Office. In the 1860s, taking advantage of the rise in cotton prices during the American Civil War, Australian settlers established cotton plantations in Fiji, which required the theft of land and the enslavement of Fijians. These settlers lobbied for the British to establish a protectorate to ensure their financial interests. Similarly, in 1883, the Queensland government even tried to force a disinclined United Kingdom into action when it attempted to militarily annex New Guinea on its own.

After the official abolition of slavery in the British Caribbean colonies, hundreds of well-compensated, slave-owning sugar planters and their children and employees resettled in Australia and started again. A burgeoning sugar industry in Queensland badly needed labor, and many of these new Australians sailed the Pacific, kidnapping and enslaving people from Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, Kiribati, and elsewhere to get it. They circumvented antislavery laws by paying their victims a nominal amount and labeling the practice indentured servitude.

Roughly 30 percent of those taken died on the sugar plantations due to the brutal conditions. The meager “wages” of the dead were mostly seized by the Queensland government, and later used to cover the cost of deporting the survivors when the White Australia policy came into effect.

Many Australians worked in colonial roles or as businessmen in the Pacific in the nineteenth century. But it was after World War I that Australia became a colonial administrator in its own right. The League of Nations granted it a mandate over both New Guinea and Nauru, and this brutal tenure provided Australia a steady supply of gold and cheap phosphate to subsidize mainland agricultural production.

From Lapdog to Sheriff

World War II completely overturned the existing balance of power, and the United States became the dominant security player in the Pacific. Australia and New Zealand signed the ANZUS Treaty in 1951, and became very junior partners in the new world order.

Australia saw ANZUS as its ticket into the big league. For its part, the US was fairly contemptuous of Australia, and refused to include it in important strategy discussions. But it dangled the carrot of greater influence by insisting Australia send troops to Middle Eastern theaters of war to earn a more important role. Notes from a 1952 conversation between the Australian ambassador and the secretary of state reveal truly craven sycophancy: Australia was “not content to be the hair on the tail of the dog . . . [but wanted to be] part of the hide of the dog itself.”

Australia has continued playing this lapdog role ever since. Its nickname was upgraded in the 1960s, when it joined a range of dictatorships to play the “spokes” in the United States’ “hub-and-spokes alliance” in the Asia Pacific. It has since consistently hosted US military bases and materially supported violent US meddling in neighboring countries’ affairs.

The Australian political establishment has also gotten cozy with US operatives. The president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions in the 1970s, for example, was a US informant. He provided crucial information during the CIA-backed soft coup that removed Prime Minister Gough Whitlam from power — thanks, in large part, to his criticisms of US military operations in the country. This informant, Bob Hawke, would later go on to become prime minister himself.

In the late 1990s, Prime Minister John Howard described Australia as America’s “deputy sheriff” in the Asia-Pacific region. Following Australia’s enthusiastic contribution of troops to the disastrous war in Iraq, George W. Bush patronizingly promoted it’s antipodean ally: “No. We don’t see it as a deputy sheriff. We see it as a sheriff.”

“Sovereignty in Our View Is Not Absolute”

During the Iraq War, Australia adapted the language of Bush’s “coalition of the willing” to a Pacific context, launching a military intervention in the Solomon Islands in 2003. The fourteen-year-long military presence was called Operation Helpem Fren (“Help a friend” in Pijin). Designed ostensibly to “restore order,” it suppressed long-standing conflicts related to IMF reforms and colonial-era land theft.

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer struck a belligerent tone in the lead-up to the operation, arguing that “we’re prepared to join coalitions of the willing that can bring focus and purpose to addressing the urgent security and other challenges we face. Sovereignty in our view is not absolute.”

This philosophy came to underpin almost all Australian defense actions in the region. It intervened militarily to ensure East Timorese independence, demanded the majority of its maritime territory and gas fields in return, and engaged in a high-level espionage campaign to undermine subsequent negotiations.

It strong-armed Papua New Guinea and Nauru into hosting militarized detention centers for refugees seeking entry to Australia. And it established military and security deals — with Australia as the senior partner — in almost all the Pacific Islands not directly controlled by the United States or France.

These interventions contradict Penny Wong’s claim that Australian partnership has no strings attached. As David Brophy has beautifully articulated, these interventions and their accompanying aid budgets demand plenty in return: the opening up of the economy to foreign capital, the appointment of Australian officials to key public roles, and extraterritorial immunity for Australian police and troops.

A Fistful of Dollars

Australian business interests dominate much of the Pacific. The Big Four banks have cannibalized New Zealand’s, and have historically dominated the region. Australian companies based in the Pacific engage in widespread tax avoidance. The Australian government accuses others of “debt-trap diplomacy” while itself engaging in conditional lending to many Pacific Island nations.

It has proven more than willing to bankroll projects that actually promise minimal financial returns in order to maintain Australian monopoly and leverage. Its foreign aid to Pacific Island nations is the highest of any country, and is notorious for being both ineffective and a quid pro quo for political influence.

Many Pacific Island nations increasingly rely on the remittances sent home from workers in Australia under the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility schemes. Given their remoteness, most islands are highly dependent on food imports, of which Australia is a major supplier. But Australia has a severe shortage of agricultural workers, and has for many years filled this vacuum with Pacific Island workers.

These labor-import schemes are infamous for exploitation, brutal conditions, wage theft and underpayment, and summary deportations. A huge percentage of the wages these workers send home is also claimed by Australian operators as fees. While the new Labor government has promised some reforms to these schemes, their focus remains on maintaining Pacific Islands’ dependence on remittances and easing worker shortages for Australian agricultural employers.

“The Most Intractable Opponents”

This so-called sheriff’s role in the Pacific has undeniably, in the twenty-first century, been one of domination, exploitation, and callous disregard. On no issue is this more obvious than climate change. Almost every Pacific Island is already experiencing widespread devastation due to climate change, including rising tides, floods, a loss of farmland due to soil salinization, fishery decline, and polluted freshwater lenses. Countless Pacific leaders and activists have accused Australia of abandoning them to a fate they had no hand in creating.

The new opposition Liberal Party leader (and previous immigration minister) Peter Dutton was famously caught on camera joking about the threat of rising seas to Pacific Islands. This was just one example of the “disrespect” Penny Wong has repeatedly referred to on her Pacific tour.

But Australia’s neglect of its climate commitments and the existential threat it continues to pose to its neighbors is not fundamentally an attitude problem. It’s a problem of interests.

As two disgruntled former prime ministers admitted in an apology letter to Pacific leaders last year,

the obstacles to climate action in Australia are not economic . . . it is the vested interests of the coal and gas industry coupled with right-wing populist media and politics that have been the most intractable opponents to cutting emissions faster and sooner.

Penny Wong promised “a new era in Australian engagement in the Pacific.” But without challenging these vested interests and the right-wing politics that dominates the region, such a new era is simply not possible.