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DEAR Editor,

In a newly released Foreign Affairs White paper, Canberra has placed significance importance on Pacific Islands

Relaying the news, reportedly to the delight of some Pacific scholars, Radio New Zealand International (RNZI) gave considerable converge in a news broadcast this evening, 27 November 2017.  Here is a précis of the main points (quote).

Beyond the diplomatic platitudes of shared heritage, interests, and longstanding ties, the paper announced a significant surge in its interests in measures like labour mobility, including going as far as recognising that “new approaches will be necessary” to how it deals with island countries.

“An academic from the Australian National University, said the White Paper contained one of Canberra’s strongest commitments to its own backyard in recent memory.

“It singles out our relationship with the Pacific and deepening that relationship as one of the five top objectives for Australia. I think that in itself is interesting,” said Professor Howes.

“The Pacific doesn’t normally have that high a profile in foreign policy discussions.”

“An entire chapter of the Foreign Affairs White Paper is devoted to the Pacific (A shared agenda for security and prosperity, it’s called), making supporting the region’s development one of the Canberra’s key aims.

“The stability and economic progress of Papua New Guinea, other Pacific island countries and Timor-Leste is of fundamental importance to Australia,” it said. “Our ties with these neighbours are long-standing and will be enduring.”

“From here, it lays out a plan to support labour mobility, something Australia was once reluctant to do; enhance security partnerships; the prospect of shared services, such as allowing Nauru, Tuvalu and Tonga to access Australian pharmaceutical testing; and fostering greater people-to-people relations.

“That’s a dramatic change from the last White Paper in 2003, which characterised the Pacific Islands as fraught with instability and governance issues, while alluding to the possibility it could be a breeding ground for extremism.

“Dr Howes said the 2017 paper took a more optimistic tone and, significantly, recognised that a new approach was needed.

“However, it’s not all altruism. Dr Howes said the new approach was also underlined by strategic concerns, particularly with a rising interest from distant powers – particularly China.

“It’s partly driven by a feeling we’ve only been paying lip service – we really have to deliver,” said Professor Howes.

“But it’s also driven by this feeling that other powers are entering the Pacific and challenging Australia’s role in the Pacific, so if we’re not careful we’re going to be marginalised.

“Australia remains the largest power in the region and is still, by far, the largest aid donor. For all the talk of China’s increased spending, its nearly US$2 billion pales in comparison to Australia’s US$7 billion, according to figures from the  Australian Lowry Institute..

“But in Australia itself, Pacific issues are often far from the priorities of the Canberra classes compared to Asia, the United States and even the Middle East. The shadow defence minister, Richard Marles, said this needed to change.

“The Pacific has choices, and we can’t take for granted that we will be the partner of choice forever,” said Mr Marles. “The country that cares the most will be the country that has the most influence in the Pacific.

“It’s really important that Australia makes clear that we are that country.”

“While a lot more optimistic than 2003, the paper still identified several challenges facing Pacific countries that would likely need assistance: weak governance, corruption and small economies vulnerable to shocks.”

Source:  Radio New Zealand International.

Yours sincerely

Frank Short

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