China secures its fringes by force. Australia should do it by invitation

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Sitting in a cafe overlooking the blue immensity of the Pacific Ocean in the tropical Marshall Islands recently, an official from the World Bank Group chatted with a local dad.

“I sat with him and his five-year-old grandson as he explained to me that his boy won’t be growing old in his country,” relates the official, Daniel Street.

Illustration: Dionne Gain.Credit:

The Marshall Islands comprise one of the world’s three most vulnerable frontline nations as oceans rise. It’s just a long strip of sand built on coral atolls in the middle of the ocean. The highest point of its capital, Majuro, stands just 1.5 metres above sea level. Unless, of course, there’s a storm surge.

“This is absolutely commanding their attention,” says Street, who’s been working and travelling in the region for a decade. “It’s horrifyingly real.”

A World Bank study in 2021 found that 37 per cent of the buildings in Majuro would be underwater permanently if the ocean rises by one metre. The other two frontline states are Kiribati and Tuvalu. All three are coral atoll nations.

Most of the Pacific island states are exposed, and not only in the future. As US ambassador to Australia Caroline Kennedy told me recently, the island in the Solomons where her father, JFK, was marooned in World War II is now two islands.

A woman at a village on the island of Abaiang in Kiribati, which is regularly inundated by sea water.Credit: Justin McManus

It’s desperately unfair. “The Pacific Islands are among the lowest emitters in the world, yet are bearing the brunt of the climate crisis,” says Street. “They face rising sea levels as much as three times the global average, which poses an existential threat for some nations which are in danger of seeing islands disappear over the coming decades.”

They also happen to be among the poorest nations on earth. Take tiny Tuvalu, with average income per head of about $US5000 a year. The cost of building a safe strip of raised land for the 6000 people of its capital of Funafuti would be $US5 billion, according to the UN Development Program. That’s more than $US800,000 per person.

But where will today’s five-year-old go as tomorrow’s climate change refugee? The governments of the Pacific island nations have a suggestion. They are asking for visa-free travel to Australia and New Zealand.

The group put it to Australia’s Penny Wong at a meeting of the foreign affairs ministers of the Pacific Island Forum on Friday. There’s “a strong desire for visa-free travel within the PIF member countries,” Fiji’s Deputy Prime Minister Biman Prasad said last week.

Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong with Pacific leaders back in 2022.Credit: Joe Armao

“The ministers also were concerned about how we have talked about regional integration for many years, yet there are a lot of barriers that exist with respect to visa-free travel to Australia-New Zealand.”

Australia is the great power of the Pacific Family nations, a continent-sized lifeboat for drowning populations. Would Australia support European Union-style visa-free travel for the region, creating a Pacific Union, the ABC’s Sabra Lane asked Penny Wong last week?

“Obviously that would be a transformative approach to the region,” replied Wong, “but there is a lot of work to do on how that would look.”

Translating this, Australian National University development economist Stephen Howes says: “Australia isn’t going to give the Pacific visa-free access,” but it is attempting to make “a huge step forward”.

Meaning? The Albanese government campaigned on a promise to create a new visa to allow permanent settlement in Australia specifically for Pacific islanders. There were to be 3000 of these Pacific Engagement Visas granted each year, with a work requirement attached. Australia already operates various temporary visa schemes for Pacific workers, but the PEVs would be the first to allow permanent settlement, and reserved only for people of the Pacific.

Quite apart from the humanitarian case, Howes points out the strategic value for Australia: “This is happening now because of China. This is something China can’t offer and Australia can. It’s people to people, it’s hearts and minds, it’s Pacific Family,” says the director of ANU’s Development Policy Centre.

China’s government has a big advantage over Australia in winning the loyalty of foreign leaders – bribes. We know from opposition members in the Solomons, for example, that Chinese officials offered bagfuls of cash to MPs in return for their support.

But Australia’s advantage trumps it. Beijing can offer bribes to Pacific leaders, but Australia can offer a future to Pacific peoples. In democratic nations like those of the Pacific, the people’s will triumphs over a corrupt leader’s personal agenda. And consider the way Beijing seeks to secure its South China Sea perimeter – by bullying the nations of South East Asia. By contrast, Australia has the opportunity to secure its Pacific perimeter by invitation.

The Lowy Institute’s director of research Herve Lemahieu says: “The best way you combat an encroaching Chinese sphere of influence in the Pacific is to combat it with a durable sphere of integration. It’ll have to be done in increments – the EU wasn’t done in one step.”

Lemahieu says that Australia currently is stuck in an unending game of “whack-a-mole” in the Pacific as it defends against Chinese advances “oscillating between the development lens and the security lens – the way out is to use the integration lens”.

Pacific island leaders are enthusiastic about the Pacific Engagement Visa, although they’d like the initial 3000 quota to be enlarged over time. But the risk now is that it doesn’t happen at all.

The snag? The Coalition. While it supports the PEV itself, the Coalition is opposed to the means of allocating the 3000 annual visas. It objects to the government’s plan to decide recipients on the basis of an annual lottery or random ballot.

New Zealand and the US use a lottery for similar schemes, and for the same reason – to use points or any other targeted system would contribute to brain drain from Pacific states. As Fiji’s Prasad has said: “Any other approach used by Australia would raise suspicion in the region.”

Australia can improve its future by improving the Pacific’s. Without the Coalition’s support, the government is looking to the Senate crossbench for some sanity.

Peter Hartcher is political and international editor.

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