Australia needs to change its view on some of its nearest neighbours and see them as a realm of opportunity instead of risk, says a leading expert from the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.
According to Associate Professor Sinclair Dinnen from the College’s State, Society and Governance in Melanesia program, the South Pacific should be seen as an ‘arc of opportunity’ rather than ‘an arc of instability’ which threatens Australian’s security and is an aid burden.
His call for a changed perception in both foreign policy and public circles comes before a specially-convened meeting of Pacific experts taking place this Friday which will examine Australia’s need to shift its focus and efforts in the region from security to development.
Speaking to ABC Radio National’s Saturday Extra program Dr Dinnen said that there is a lot of change taking place across the region which makes old views about the South Pacific – like the arc of instability concept – increasingly redundant.
“There are lots of things happening in the region and it is not all negative and downhill, and I think people recognise there is a need to revisit how we in Australia particularly at an unofficially level view our immediate neighbourhood.
“If we think about Papua New Guinea for example, we’ve long-viewed PNG as an extremely challenging and difficult place for Australia and yet the PNG economy has been growing at rates that we would love to see in our own place.
“I am not for one moment saying that Australia doesn’t play a very significant and welcome role in the aid and assistance that it does provide [the region]. But, there are a whole lot of other things that are happening in the region that are agents for transformation. We also need to take on board and perhaps reflect on the fact that Australian leverage historically has diminished because of factors such as the ability of governments in the region, or some of them, to generate their own funds.
“Then there are non-traditional players like China are emerging as significant players in the region that we haven’t seen before. So, I think it’s important to see these other developments and to view Australia’s role and to view it a wider context.”
Dr Dinnen added that it was increasingly urgent for Australia to change its foreign policy on the region before it is too late.
“I’d like to see a much more engaged approach by the Australian government and that means any government, rather than the one that turns on and off according to perceptions of crises in other countries or the region as a whole that provides an opportunity for developing the relationships that are really necessary in order to maximise the leverage that we do have.
“There has been a significant feeling among some of our neighbours that Australia has tended to adopt an arrogant outlook in relation to some of the issues that are challenging the region; that the region only comes on to the Australian radar when there are big problems and that reinforces a view in some parts of the Australian policy community and academic community that our neighbours are the ‘neighbours from hell’. We don’t really see the dynamism and the change, the resilience in a region that is really diverse.
“I think the inconsistency in the manner of our engagement plus the evidence that we occasionally have shown that there isn’t great understanding of the nuances and the complexities of the region in some parts of our policy community; I think we can do a letter better on that front. And if we can open up these channels and maintain them I think that is a move forward.”
The workshop, The South Pacific: from arc of instability to arc of opportunity, is organised by Dr Sinclair Dinnen and Dr Joanne Wallis from the College’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, and sponsored by the Research School of Asia and the Pacific.
More: Listen to Dr Dinnen’s interview with Saturday Extra at ABC Radio National. Read a special edition on the South Pacific as an arc of opportunity at the Kokoda Foundation’s Security Challenges journal.