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Monday, 30 May 2011
Page: 5247

Mr FRYDENBERG (Kooyong) (21:20): Mr Deputy Speaker, you know you have a problem in foreign policy when one of your nearest neighbours hosts a significant regional leaders meeting and you are not invited but Luxembourg is.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Hon. Peter Slipper ): Well, as the Deputy Speaker, I would not expect to be invited!

Mr FRYDENBERG: Hang on, you might say; isn't Luxembourg the second smallest member of the European Union, a relatively minor aid donor and insignificant in the global security debate? Yes, it is, but it is also a candidate for a temporary seat on the UN Security Council for 2013-14—you guessed it, in a run-off against Australia.

So there we have it: Luxembourg being personally invited by Fiji's Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama to join him and the leaders of Papua New Guinea, the Solomons, Vanuatu and New Caledonia and representatives of Indonesia and East Timor at the Melanesian Spearhead Group summit he recently hosted in Suva—Luxembourg in, Australia out, a diplomatic humiliation if ever there was one and, to boot, a significant setback for our Security Council candidacy, which to be successful would require widespread support from our neighbours in the region.

But what is more disconcerting for the future of Australian policy is that this event is symptomatic of a broader malaise in our Pacific strategy. In the words of the respected government funded Australian Strategic Policy Institute, ASPI, in their 2011 strategic assessment titled Changing pace, Australia's 'influence in the South Pacific is in relative decline'. The report goes on to suggest that our absence from regional groupings such as Bainimarama's group, the heightened interventions of third countries in the region and the rise of a new generation of leadership who do not have the deep and abiding personal relationships with Australia that their predecessors had are all contributing factors to our decline.

Such a development is a code red for Australian diplomacy. The South Pacific is our backyard and has to be tended to as such. In fact, stability and security in the South Pacific were highlighted in the 2009 defence white paper as the second priority task for the ADF after insuring Australia against direct attack. The department of foreign affairs in their strategic documents place an equivalent weight on our interests in the South Pacific. But, just as it guides the Gillard government's official policy as prepared by the bureaucrats, it is also the direction and the priority laid out by the Labor Party's political apparatchiks at the last election. The Labor Party's 2010 election document Advancing Australia's interests internationally boasts on page 10:

Federal Labor has reversed the years of neglect of the Pacific by the Coalition. We have restored strong relationships with countries like Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands.

… … …

Federal Labor has taken forward a comprehensive agenda with our Pacific island neighbours.

Our efforts have been welcomed by the region and have ensured that difficult issues like the political situation in Fiji have been met by the region with a unified stance.

Well, that is news to the region and another culpable example of Labor spin. Pacific leaders turned up in their droves to accept Bainimarama's invitation, despite Australia and New Zealand's absence. After succeeding last year in persuading Vanuatu's former Prime Minister Edward Natapei to cancel the summit and prevent a handover to Bainimarama, Australia has now run out of tricks. Bainimarama now has the leadership, has hardened his resolve against Australia and is extending his diplomatic reach, including joining the 118-nation non-aligned movement. Meanwhile, Australia continues with its failed strategy of isolating Fiji and has left a power vacuum which other countries—in particular China—are rushing to fill. China now funds the Melanesia Spearhead Group Secretariat in Vanuatu's capital, Port Vila, and has hosted Prime Minister Bainimarama on an extensive visit to Beijing. The Fijian Prime Minister did not take much convincing as to where his best interests lay, saying that China:

… is the only nation that can help assist Fiji in its reforms becaus e of the way the Chinese think … they are visionary …

… … …

We need infrastructure, we need water, we need electricity. Australia and New Zealand and America, none of those nations are going to provide that.

It is a sentiment shared by the Chinese. China's Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, Cui Tiankai, said during a visit last year to the Pacific region that his country's ambition was to 'further strengthen cooperation with Pacific islands' regional organisations'.

The language is subtle, but the message is not: an expansionary China eyes a strategic opportunity to expand its influence in our region and is now in headlong pursuit of the opportunity. Fiji is not the only beneficiary; in addition to receiving the promise of a generous aid program late last year, East Timor purchased two Shanghai-class patrol boats, and its Prime Minister, Xanana Gusmao, indicated his desire for stronger bilateral military ties. Australia's cause for concern is only compounded by the revelation in the Wikileaks cables that in 2007 Beijing approached Dili about establishing a surveillance radar facility on its coast under the guise of helping Dili campaign against illegal fishing. China offered to build and operate the facility with Chinese technicians for no cost, but the East Timorese fortunately understood the offer for what it was: an attempt to expand China's intelligence collection capability in the region. Despite this near miss, there is nothing to say that the next Chinese offer will face a similar rebuke.

Elsewhere, in Vanuatu, the parliamentary building has received funding from Beijing; so too the High Court building in the Cook Islands, a school building in Tonga and sport stadiums in Port Moresby and Suva, to name a few examples of China's largesse. Soft loans running into hundreds of millions of dollars—strategic investments from Chinese state enterprises—have been matched by high-level visits from various figures, including the Chinese Premier, and goodwill visits from the Chinese navy to ports throughout the Pacific. While the success and reach of China's efforts are abundantly clear, the United States has renewed its efforts. Hillary Clinton visited PNG late last year and held special meetings with Pacific island leaders on the margins of the UN General Assembly, and America's Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Kurt Campbell, reiterated before Congress the Obama administration's interest in the South Pacific and called for an 'enhanced engagement' with the region and a 'stepping up' of their commitment.

What a contrast that is with Australia's approach. Our foreign minister, Kevin Rudd, has found time to visit Lichtenstein, Tunisia and Kazakhstan but has not made one visit to PNG, Fiji or New Zealand since his appointment as foreign minister. PNG and Fiji have not been graced by his presence since 2008. Such a travel itinerary for an Australian foreign minister is incompetent at best and negligent at worst. If Australia has a prime minister who by her own admission has no interest in foreign policy matters and would rather be in a school classroom than meeting her counterpart foreign leaders and has a foreign minister who is more intent on pursuing his own personal ambitions in the United Nations than on visiting our neighbours in the region, what hope do we have of correcting this mess that we find ourselves in in the South Pacific?

What is more, with the Prime Minister and the foreign minister barely on speaking terms, the likelihood of a coordinated and effective new strategy is nil. All this comes from a government whose foreign policy achievements are minimal and whose foreign policy failures are numerous. An Asia-Pacific community initiative that failed to get off the ground, a non-existent East Timor solution that antagonised our key neighbours—including Indonesia—and an abandoned quadrilateral security dialogue with strategic partners India, Japan and the United States are all initiatives, to name just a few, which have failed.

I finish where I started: Australia's strategic influence in the South Pacific is on the wane, and the Gillard government's foreign policy approach is compounding our problems. Urgent action is required, and our foreign minister cannot afford to be distracted by personal frolics abroad or personal vendettas at home. Australia's national interest requires dramatic action today—because tomorrow will be too late.