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Wong is leading a new era of engagement with Pacific island states

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Pacific island countries could end use of Australian donations patrol boats with defects including cracks in the coupling between engine and gearbox, and a defect in the ships exhaust system. This is a blow to the $2.1 billion maritime program which is the centerpiece of our security assistance in the region. In all honesty, all ships have starting problems. It would be remarkable if there were no problems with the Guardian class boats.

Despite this setback, we believe there is now more reason to be optimistic that Australia can at least slow China’s expansion in our near abroad. New Foreign Secretary Penny Wong deserves much of the credit; in just four weeks, she visited Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and the Solomon Islands. Australia recently joined with the United States, United Kingdom, New Zealand and Japan to create Partners in the Blue Pacific to provide assistance to small islands and scale up coordinated efforts to counter Chinese initiatives.

The previous government largely left engagement with the region to a junior minister. It was a source of irritation, especially in the most powerful countries in the region, Papua New Guinea and Fiji. It is not insignificant that the lion’s share of China’s engagement in the Pacific is assumed by its Minister of Foreign Affairs, Wang Yi.

It is inevitable that Wong will assign some of the responsibility for regional engagement to Pacific and International Development Minister Pat Conroy. But it will not have escaped her, nor that of the Prime Minister, that she has been extremely well received by the leaders of the Pacific islands. She showed them a level of respect that hasn’t been evident in recent years.

The Albanian government is currently developing a series of policies that should please our Pacific neighbours; the focus seems to be shifting more towards working with the region to shape global discussions on climate change and greater engagement of people.

Sports is an area that offers opportunities to dramatically improve the engagement of our people in a way that China cannot hope to match. It is true that China is active in building sports infrastructure in the region, including the Solomon Islands 2023 Pacific Games stadium. But we should invest more heavily at strengthen existing programs in elite sport partnerships and community sport in the Pacific.

Another area for development, largely neglected by the former government, is engagement with Christian churches in the region. Christian church membership in Australia is in serious decline. But Christianity is flourishing in most island countries, especially the Pentecostal churches. Most of our regional neighbors lack serious capacity in health, school education and vocational training. A number of Australian churches already have a strong presence in these areas of the region. But with the support of the Australian government, they could do much more.

Greater priority must be given to Australian businesses by supporting industry groups such as the Australia-Papua New Guinea Business Council. China has capitalized very effectively on the decline in Australian trading activity in the Pacific in some key sectors.

While Australian banks are pulling out or downsizing in the Pacific, Chinese banks and financial institutions are doing the exact opposite, including through extensive lending support to small business sectors in island states. Many Pacific Island countries are successfully developing small businesses in urban and rural communities. But they are going to need better access to finance and training, and Australia is better placed than China to provide both.

Finally, Australia’s defense investment program will require an additional 20,000 uniformed personnel to operate the acquired capabilities. While the Australian Defense Force is posting an average annual net growth of only 300 personnel, the ADF has just launched an urgent appeal to recruit young Australians. We should invite Pacific Islanders into our armed forces for a period of three to four years. The concept would be extremely popular in the islands and would develop powerful people-to-people bonds with our military that would last a lifetime.

There is no greater bonding experience than a recruit course followed by active military service. Citizenship can even be offered upon completion of service. The involvement of Pacific Islanders in the delivery of Australian programs to island states, whether training, aid or disaster relief, will make that engagement much more effective for all of us. Military service is a unique offer that we can do that China cannot and does not want.