• A young girl waves the Samoan flag as HMAS Choules's MR-60R Seahawk helicopter prepares to take off.
    A young girl waves the Samoan flag as HMAS Choules's MR-60R Seahawk helicopter prepares to take off. Defence

The government’s efforts to promote its ‘step-up’ in the Pacific are continuing, with six ministers set to visit PNG next week in the largest such delegation in a decade.

Meanwhile, Army engineers have arrived in East Timor for the sixth iteration of Exercise Hari’i Hamutuk and HMAS Choules recently docked in Samoa for a week of diplomacy and cultural engagements.

The visits come shortly after PM Scott Morrison defended Australia’s dependence on coal-fired electricity generation to an audience of Pacific nations facing extinction as a result of global carbon emissions, 30 per cent of which come from coal-fired electricity generation.

“What is the relevance of Australia’s ongoing protestations in the forum?” former president of Kiribati Anote Tong asked. “If it’s going to continue with that line, it poses a danger to the other countries in that forum.

“How can you justify being part of a family and part of a group which you’re trying to destroy?”

Although the government is keen to avoid the idea that Australia’s step-up in the Pacific is driven by Beijing’s increasing regional presence, the strategic imperative is undeniable. China has been expanding its regional scientific and economic presence with dual-use capabilities and investing heavily in a range of development programs, stoking fears that it will leverage financial debts to gain a military base south of the equator.

China is, of course, the single largest contributor to global carbon emissions, accounting for a quarter of all global CO2 output in 2018. As its emissions increase it is likely to suffer similar diplomatic repercussions in the South Pacific. This should provide a strategic opportunity for Canberra to outmanoeuvre Beijing by leading on domestic renewable energy policy as both jostle for influence.

Canberra does appear to be aware of the opportunity. PM Morrison unveiled a half-billion-dollar funding package to improve the Pacific’s resilience to climate disasters and has set aside $140m to prompt commercial investments in low emission projects in the Pacific. Yet Australian money no longer carries the same weight in a region benefitting from Chinese investment and diplomatic outreach.

“No matter how much money you put on the table, it doesn’t give you the excuse to not to do the right thing, which is to cut down on your emissions, including not opening your coalmines,” Tuvalu’s PM Enele Sopoaga said. “That is the thing that we want to see.”

Meanwhile, Fijian PM Frank Bainimarama told the Guardian that PM Morrison’s stance on the climate was ‘very insulting and condescending’, describing the meeting as one of the most frustrating days of his life.

“I thought Morrison was a good friend of mine,” PM Bainimarama said. “Apparently not.

“China never insults the Pacific. [Australians] keep saying the Chinese are going to take over. Guess why?”

It is becoming clear that throwing money at the problem is no longer enough: Australia will need to shift its domestic energy policies to ensure the Pacific step-up achieves its strategic goals.

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