14 Nov 2018

Australia's new Pacific missions questioned

9:32 am on 14 November 2018
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Photo: AFP

An academic says Australia's new diplomatic missions in some Pacific nations may not be very effective because of their close ties to other countries.

Last week Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced new posts in Palau, the Marshall Islands, French Polynesia, Niue and the Cook Islands.

Matthew Dornan, from the Australian National University, said the government was trying to address concerns it was neglecting the Pacific.

But he said he didn'tt know what Australia could achieve in Niue, which has a population of about 1600 people and is part of New Zealand's realm.

"I would question some of those announcements. I think particularly in the case of Niue, given its very small population and its very close ties to New Zealand of course. I'm not sure it does make a great deal of sense for Australia to have a diplomatic mission there," he said.

Australian High Commission, New Zealand.

Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

The Cook Islands Deputy Prime Minister, Mark Brown, said Australia planned to establish an embassy in Rarotonga in the next financial year.

"We welcome Australia looking at having a permanent mission here in Rarotonga and further developing our relationship on a bilateral basis with Australia," he said in an interview on Friday.

On Thursday last week, Mr Morrison unveiled plans for a new $US1.5 billion infrastructure bank, to provide loans to Pacific nations for projects like telecommunications, energy, transport and water.

"This signals a shift by Australia into infrastructure more broadly, which is partly in response to the comments from Pacific Island leaders that Australia has focused too much on governance and hasn't done enough in the way of physical infrastructure," Mr Dornan said.

Mr Morrison also promised increased military and police cooperation and annual defence, police and border security meetings.

Australia has also recently announced a new naval ship dedicated to the Pacific and a joint-naval base with Papua New Guinea in Manus Island.

But the reenergised effort by Australia's defence force comes amid criticism the country is militarising the Pacific region, and failing to address climate change priorities, Mr Dornan said.

A communique signed at the end of the Pacific Islands Forum in Nauru in September highlighted climate change as the single greatest threat to Pacific people.

But in Mr Morrison's speech last week, there was no mention of climate change.

"There's clearly a big gap in terms of Australia's engagement with the region, and I think this security focus is problematic because of that gap," Mr Dornan said.