PM Scott Morrison, Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne, and Minister for Defence Christopher Pyne have outlined a plan to “step up” Australia’s presence in the Pacific despite significant cuts to that presence in recent years.
The Coalition’s new plans for the Pacific include: a new Pacific faculty at the Australian Institute of Police Management; the establishment of a new ADF Pacific Mobile Training Team; an annual Joint-Heads of Pacific Security Forces event; $1 billion in capital to Efic, Australia’s export financing agency; a new sports grants program; a $2 billion infrastructure initiative; and a ‘large-hulled’ dedicated humanitarian assistance and response naval vessel.
"[The vessel] could be assisting with preparations for natural disasters, resilience support, or it could respond to natural disasters as they occur," Minister Pyne said.
It is unclear what type of ship the government intends to build, or where the build would occur.
The announcement comes less than a week after Opposition Leader Bill Shorten spelt out Labor’s plans for a regional infrastructure bank and other tools for increasing Australia’s influence in the Pacific.
“We are not going to forfeit the Pacific because we didn’t turn up,” Minister Shorten said.
“We will encourage the private sector to drive development in the region. My vision is to actively facilitate concessional loans and financing for investment that is for vital national building projects through a government-backed infrastructure investment bank.”
There is widespread concern that China is making strategic in-roads in the region. Beijing has used conditional loans to bring small Pacific states into financial debt. A similar scheme was used to take ownership of the Sri Lankan port of Hambantota, which lies close to major maritime trading routes between Asia and the Middle East.
Canberra is also upgrading wharf and shore-based infrastructure at PNG’s Lombrum Naval Base on Manus Island under the Pacific Maritime Security Program.
The Lombrum base controls the approaches to the Vitiaz Strait, between the PNG mainland and the island of New Britain. The majority of shipping vessels heading to or from Australia’s east coast pass through the strait, which is only 47 kilometres wide at its narrowest point. Lombrum also sits roughly halfway between northern Queensland and major American military facilities on Guam.
Interestingly, the government said it intends to “work with our commercial media operators to ensure the Pacific can connect to quality Australian media content.”
This statement stands in stark contrast to the ABC’s decision to cut its shortwave radio broadcast service in 2017, which was run out of towers near Shepparton in Victoria. Numerous people throughout remote regions in the Pacific used Australian shortwave broadcasts as their primary means of connecting to the world.
The government’s failure to save the service was criticised as a ‘major diplomatic misstep’, particularly given that it was a crucial means of transmitting emergency information throughout the South Pacific. The ABC said that the broadcasts would be replaced by ‘digital content’, but only 10 per cent of PNG’s population (as an example) have internet access.
The national broadcaster made the decision to save $2 million a year, a sum that pales in comparison to the $2 billion the government has now allocated to fund regional infrastructure. If Canberra intends to signal to Pacific countries that it remains their partner of choice, it is sending very mixed messages.
Incidentally, Australia’s former shortwave frequencies have since been taken over by China Radio International.