Did you hear? There’s a cold war in Paradise. China’s geo-strategic thrust into the Pacific caught the Morrison government napping―especially with China’s deal with Solomon Islands―and now there’s more to come. The Chinese Foreign Minister has completed an eight-country visit to the region to negotiate trade and security agreements, similar to the one Beijing forged with the Solomon Islands.

Now the newly elected Albanese Labor Government has wasted no time in trying to rebuild Australia’s reputation in the Pacific to contain China’s influence. In fact, on her first day in office the new Foreign Minister Senator Penny Wong made a video specifically for Pacific nations before she joined the new Prime Minister Anthony Albanese on the flight to Tokyo to the Quad meeting (Australia joining Japan, USA and India). And as soon as she got back, channelling former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Kevin “707” Rudd, she flew straight to Fiji to reassure our regional neighbours that the new Australian Labor Government would prioritise the Pacific on its foreign policy agenda.

Penny Wong quite rightly identified climate change as a key Pacific concern, saying Australia needed to do more to save its neighbours from the fall out of lack of climate action let alone the planet. The visions of former Prime Ministers Tony Abbott, Scott Morrison and now Opposition Leader Peter Dutton making jokes about the rising seas and “water lapping at your door” in the Pacific were fresh in Pacific memories, hence the haste with which Wong flew to Fiji. Climate policy will be a major issue for Australia-Pacific engagement.

Along with the pressing need for climate policy action, there are also other ways to re-establish Australia’s ties with the Pacific.

One is international trade and investment. Pacific nations already comprise 3 of our top 20 exporter destinations (that is number of exporters, not export values), as the Pacific has always been a great nursery for exporting small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) trying their luck off shore for the first time. Many try the Pacific (especially New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Fiji) before going onto ASEAN and the rest of the Asia Pacific.

A second is education and the labour market. The shortages of labour in rural areas of Australia have long attracted guest workers from the Pacific. When we filmed The Airport Economist Crisis and Recovery series, we visited Batlow, who had their apple orchards revived by Pacific islander guest workers who entertained the locals with magnificent singing from their choirs that are so prevalent back home. We know that many Pacific islanders come to Australia as guest workers as students for education and many Pacific islanders eventually settle in Australia (often via New Zealand) and that there are vast Pacific communities in cities like Sydney, Brisbane and Auckland. Close to home and already with strong communities many Pacific Islanders would prefer to settle in Sydney rather than Shanghai and Shenzhen. The new Albanese Government has also announced a new Pacific Engagement visa that will help matters and that was central to Labor’s election campaign commitment to the Pacific

A third is media and communications. The new Albanese Government could restore the services of the Australia Network and Radio Australia that were cut by the Abbott Government when Joe Hockey was Treasurer and Julie Bishop Foreign Minister. The Albanese Government has pledged to fund the ABC to do more work in this area.

And a fourth, which may have slipped under the radar is sport. It’s time for the National Rugby League (NRL) to grant Papua New Guinea (PNG) the 18th licence. They love their league in PNG, produce a lot of talent as well as fervent supporters, and the game brings commercial and trade opportunities to both countries. The NRL can do what Beijing can’t.

And in Rugby Union, there are now Pacific men’s and women’s teams competing in the Super Rugby Pacific tournament. Rather than having Pacific players just play for Australian and New Zealand teams, there are home-based sides as well. Of course, the export of great Pacific rugby players to New Zealand, Australia and the northern hemisphere is well known. But it is important to ensure that player welfare is looked after and that there is support at home for development programs too not just stars abroad. 

In short, economic development, trade and aid will matter in restoring Australia’s reputation in the Pacific along with Senator Wong’s emphasis on Climate Innovation. But don’t underestimate the passion for sport, especially the rugby codes, and sport diplomacy amongst the people of the Pacific, New Zealand and Australia.


Tim Harcourt is an Industry Professor and Chief Economist at IPPG at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS).