Response to John Blaxland’s “Developing a Grand Compact for the Pacific”

AUSTRALIAN FOREIGN AFFAIRS – September 2020

By Nic Maclellan

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Australian Foreign Affairs 8: Can We Trust America?.

This correspondence is featured in Australian Foreign Affairs 9: Spy vs Spy.

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In “The Fix” (AFA8, February 2020), John Blaxland proposes that “Australia should offer a compact of association with South Pacific countries, allowing for shared governance”. Such compacts would offer Australian residency and potentially citizenship to individuals from four countries – Kiribati, Tuvalu, Nauru and Tonga – alongside a “similar but less all-encompassing supportive arrangement” for those from larger states such as Vanuatu, Solomon Islands and Fiji.

Blaxland’s proposal has fundamental flaws. It underestimates the dynamism of contemporary Pacific regionalism, ignores current debates over security, self-determination and sovereignty in the region, and perpetuates neo-colonial values that devalue Pacific culture, identity and agency.

The idea of a compact of free association with Pacific nations is not new. Variations on a security and migration trade-off have previously been floated by economist Ross Garnaut, former prime minister Kevin Rudd and Australian Defence Force Lieutenant Colonel Greg Colton. The idea draws on Howard-era proposals for a Pacific community with an integrated economy and a single currency, the Rudd government’s Pacific Partnerships for Development and Security, and the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper, which aims “to integrate Pacific countries into the Australian and New Zealand economies and our security institutions”.

But why is a compact of association required? If the offer of citizenship is sincere, why doesn’t Australia – like New Zealand – establish a Pacific access visa category, without demanding a security quid pro quo? The World Bank has already proposed that Australia and New Zealand allow open access to people from Kiribati and Tuvalu, without the need for a compact. We could open up pathways to citizenship for existing Pacific seasonal workers. Beyond this, Australia might support appropriate relocation to other island nations, rather than to the outer suburbs of Sydney, Brisbane and Auckland.

Blaxland seems reluctant to articulate clearly the key objective of his proposal, which is to maintain Australia’s long-standing policy of strategic denial in the Pacific islands. In his 2017 proposal for a compact of free association, published in an article on the Lowy Institute website, the ADF’s Greg Colton is more honest – the objective is to contain China’s growing influence and reinforce the ANZUS alliance:

If Australia were to incorporate Nauru, Tuvalu and Kiribati into a compact of free association, it would deny China the ability to become the dominant external influence in these three countries. Looked at on a global map, this would in effect extend and deepen the second island chain formed by the US Free Compact States and enhance Australia’s alliance with the US.

Blaxland’s focus on Australia’s historic Anglophone partners seems quaint and outdated. He asserts: “At the time of Australia’s federation, much of the Pacific consisted of British colonies.” Well, yes, apart from the Portuguese in Timor; the Germans in New Guinea, Samoa and Micronesia; the French in New Caledonia and the Établissements français de l’Océanie; the Americans in Hawaii, Guam and American Samoa; and the Dutch in the East Indies and Dutch New Guinea.

Migration pathways are a key legacy of this colonialism: people from US Freely Associated States head to Guam, Hawaii and Arkansas; Samoa, Cook Islands, Tokelau and Niue are granted access to New Zealand; the French dependencies are the responsibility of Paris. Blaxland’s proposal of compacts for just four countries implicitly accepts this colonial carve-up, but ignores the realities of contemporary migration, labour mobility and transnational networks of kin.

Many Pacific countries today are eager to transcend these historic colonial divisions. Tonga and Tuvalu are active in the Polynesian Leaders Group, alongside American, French and New Zealand territories and other independent Polynesian states. Kiribati and Nauru participate fully alongside US compact states and territories in Micronesian leaders’ summits. New Caledonia and French Polynesia are now full members of the Pacific Islands Forum.

Blaxland underestimates the dynamism of this Pacific diplomacy. He also fails to recognise the significance of the Pacific Small Island Developing States (PSIDS) group at the United Nations. PSIDS was created expressly to develop collective diplomacy by island states – without Australia and New Zealand in the room. The Asian bloc at the United Nations now includes the PSIDS group, providing support for Fiji to win the presidency of the UN General Assembly, chair global climate negotiations and co-host the first global oceans summit.

Gaining confidence from more than twenty years of climate diplomacy, PSIDS is now striking out into international negotiations on oceans, fisheries and development finance, as documented in Greg Fry and Sandra Tarte’s book The New Pacific Diplomacy. While Australia is still a crucial development partner, this increased South–South diplomacy runs counter to the notion that Canberra has the answers to “governance, security, stability and prosperity in the Pacific”.

Would Blaxland’s “shared governance” require constitutional reform, in line with Kevin Rudd’s 2019 suggestion of “a formal constitutional condominium” with three smaller island states? Given the repeated failure to amend the Australian constitution to develop a treaty with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, this notion of pan-Pacific constitutional change seems far-fetched. Under international law on decolonisation, compacts of free association were designed as a step towards sovereignty – why would Tuvalu, Kiribati and especially Tonga go backwards and renounce full control of their territory and ocean? (Oh, to be a fly on the wall when the Australian high commissioner tells the king of Tonga he must share governance with Canberra.)

Blaxland does acknowledge that “it will be critical to articulate the mutual benefits, lest the arrangement appear a neo-colonial land grab”. The danger is that the push for shared control of exclusive economic zones will seem a neo-colonial ocean grab. At a time of regional debates on sustainable ocean management, many Pacific citizens are concerned about proposals for seabed mining, deep-sea oil and gas exploration, climate geoengineering and the biopiracy of marine life.

Indigenous control of land and ocean resources is more than a matter of “local sensitivities and cultural idiosyncrasies”. Many islanders are well aware of the sorry history of Australian attempts to control oil resources in the Timor Sea. They are wary of new ANZUS military bases in the region, including the Australian/US support for an expanded naval facility on Manus Island.

Blaxland recognises that “the success of a free compact arrangement will depend on presenting it in a respectful manner that considers Pacific environmental sensibilities”. But the proposed loss of sovereignty is unlikely to be accepted if improved migration to Australia is simply the carrot that allows Canberra to drive foreign policy and deny China strategic influence in the region. A formal compact might also require Australia to choose sides in current maritime boundary claims, such as Tonga’s dispute with Fiji over the Minerva Reefs or Vanuatu’s dispute with France over Matthew and Hunter islands.

The other fatal flaw of this proposal is the lack of realism about global warming. The climate emergency threatens us all – not just low-lying atoll states. It is already impacting on food and water security across the Mekong, Ganges and Yangtze deltas. If Funafuti and South Tarawa are threatened, so too are Miami, London and other major cities. Last summer’s megafires devastated Australian farms, bushland and biodiversity, and Royal Australian Navy vessels were diverted to evacuate citizens off the beach at Mallacoota in Victoria. Blaxland’s proposal seems to put off the hard choices on climate action that have paralysed Australian policymakers for two decades and alienated our island neighbours.

Nic Maclellan is a correspondent for Islands Business magazine (Fiji) and other Pacific media.


Read John Blaxland’s response here

Cover of AFA9 SPY VS SPY

This is correspondence to Australian Foreign Affairs 8: Can We Trust America?. To read the full issue, log in, subscribe or buy the issue.

This correspondence is featured in Australian Foreign Affairs 9: Spy vs Spy.

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