Australian and New Zealand officials are set to seal a wide-ranging security agreement with Pacific Island nations that analysts say should be used to limit the military involvement of non-signatories such as Russia and China in the region.
The agreement, covering defence, law and order, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, is expected to be signed at the Pacific Islands Forum in September after senior officials from nations involved met last month, The Australian reports.
International Development Minister Concetta Fierravanti-Wells said Australia had contributed views on regional security issues such as defence, police, and law and order co-operation, during the consultation process.
“A new Biketawa Plus regional security declaration will guide Pacific Islands Forum member countries, including Australia, and regional organisations on Pacific priorities for security co-operation, and provide a framework for responding to emerging threats,” Senator Fierravanti-Wells told The Australian.
The move comes amid a major Australian effort to strengthen ties with Pacific nations in the face of rising Chinese government finance, assistance and influence in the region, and after a fresh warning to parliamentarians that China’s growing policing presence in the region has expanded to include training, secondments and joint operations.
The Turnbull government last month secured passage through parliament for its foreign interference bill, creating laws aimed at stopping overseas powers, including China, from intervening in elections and political decisions.
The deal builds on the Biketawa Declaration agreed to in 2000 by Pacific leaders after the coup in Fiji and tensions in the Solomon Islands.
It is also expected to cover environmental security and climate change resilience, and comes on top of a number of security agreements that Australia has been signing with individual Pacific nations.
Last month Malcolm Turnbull launched negotiations for a new security deal with Vanuatu after reports that China had been discussing establishing a military presence in the country.
Australia has previously signed bilateral security treaties with the Solomon Islands, Tuvalu and Nauru. Defence Minister Marise Payne was in Tonga and the Solomon Islands for military-to-military talks last month.
The Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2018 military exercises this year included defence and security training with forces in Vanuatu, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands and the Australian army is scoping engineering works to support the Vanuatu mobile forces.
Along with redirecting even more of Australia’s aid to the Pacific in the May budget, the Turnbull government recently agreed to build a 4000km, $136 million undersea internet cable connecting PNG, the Solomons and Australia to prevent Chinese company Huawei building the infrastructure.
The Prime Minister is expected to sign the deal, along with other Pacific Islands Forum members, on his trip to the forum in September, the Department of Foreign Affairs confirmed.
“The Pacific Islands Forum secretariat is managing the process for adoption of the Biketawa Plus declaration,” a DFAT spokeswoman said. “The final document is expected to be ready for signature at the leaders’ meeting in September.”
Greg Colton, a former research fellow at the Lowy Institute, said in a paper in April — “Safeguarding Australia’s security interests through closer Pacific ties” — that Biketawa Plus should be used to mitigate China and Russia’s influence.
“Additionally, the new declaration should seek to limit the military involvement in the region of those external actors not signatories to the agreement, and therefore not part of the larger ‘Pacific family’,” Mr Colton wrote. “This would at least make it more difficult for nations from outside the region, such as China or Russia, to use military means in the region.”
Australia, New Zealand and France remain the largest militaries in the region. Australia has a defence co-operation program operating in the Pacific Islands, tied to the delivery of the new Guardian Class offshore patrol vessels.
Under the foreign policy white paper, Australia committed to setting up an Australian Pacific Security College “to deliver security and law-enforcement training at the leadership level” in the Pacific.
A parliamentary library briefing paper speculated that the commitment “may reflect a renewed desire on the part of the Australian government to work with Pacific Island countries to ensure values such as rule of law and transparency are strengthened as new players emerge”.
The paper, by Cameron Hill, also warned that while Australia “remains the leading external law and justice partner in the Pacific” China’s regional policing relationships were “evolving”.
“While still in its early stages, (Beijing’s) presence spans several of the Pacific Island countries which recognise (China) and, in some cases, has expanded beyond the provision of facilities and equipment to include training, secondments and joint operations,” it said.
James Batley, of ANU’s Department of Pacific Affairs, has argued any move for Australia to be too assertive in the Biketawa Plus process could put Pacific island countries off-side as many wanted to drive the agenda themselves.