Marles – who is also defense minister – vowed that Australia would “do its part” to bolster its military capabilities in the region, with the Albanian government determined to “take more responsibility for its own security” compared to its predecessors.
The US and Australia have been criticized for neglecting the Pacific after a post-Cold War focus on Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Anna Powles, a Pacific security expert and senior lecturer at Massey University, said previous efforts to shape U.S. Pacific programs have lacked consistency and decisiveness for Pacific countries.
But China’s ambitions to establish a military foothold in the Pacific, as well as its investments in infrastructure in Fiji and other island nations, have forced the White House and Canberra to rethink their approach. The region has been frustrated by a lack of climate action, the economic impact of COVID-19 and the perception that it has become entangled in the geostrategic battle between the US and China.
Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama told the leaders forum on Tuesday that climate change is damaging the security and livelihoods of the Pacific.
“It harms our economies, and in many cases threatens our own sovereignty, as climate-induced sea level rise threatens our exclusive economic zones,” he said.
“In addition, the global geopolitical landscape is highly competitive as we see a multipolar system emerge with great rivalry between superpowers alongside a number of middle powers all clamoring to shape the world in their favor.”
Kiribati’s withdrawal from the forum and growing concerns about Solomon Island’s security pact with Beijing prompted Foreign Secretary Penny Wong to explicitly call for unity in her first official remarks in Suva. “Together, the region is stronger. It’s a simple proposal,” she said on Tuesday.
“All nations are trying to meet challenges. And we do it best when we can do it together and that’s the approach Australia has taken. And that’s the approach the Pacific Islands Forum is taking and that’s why Pacific Forum’s unity is so important.”
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin described claims that China had encouraged Kiribati to withdraw as “baseless”. “I would like to emphasize that China does not interfere in the internal affairs of the Pacific islands,” he said.
Nauru’s president Lionel Aingimea also withdrew from the forum on Tuesday. The Pacific Island nation has established close ties with Beijing, but Radio New Zealand reported Tuesday that Aingimea’s withdrawal was due to rising levels of COVID-19 after the tiny nation registered more than 600 cases last week.
Marles told the Center for Strategic and International Studies, one of Washington’s leading think tanks, that the US and Australia “couldn’t afford to stand still” as they grapple with a military buildup from China “moving at a rate that hasn’t been shown since World War II.” II.”
“In the coming years, the US-Australia alliance will not only have to operate in a much more challenging strategic environment in the Indo-Pacific; it will have to contribute to a more effective balance of military power aimed at preventing a catastrophic failure of the deterrence,” he said.
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