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The Australian government has announced the next leg of its Pacific step-up ahead of Scott Morrison’s visit to Tuvalu this week, spending $19 million (US$12 million) on establishing a new security college to train officials from the region.
The latest security initiative comes as Morrison is set to face strong criticism at the Pacific Islands Forum leaders meeting this week over Australia’s climate change policies and its support for the Adani coal mine.
The college, which is being set up in partnership with the Australian National University, is aimed at boosting links between security and police officials across the Pacific amid concern about China’s expanding investment and influence.
Jonathan Pryke, director of the Pacific Islands program at the Lowy Institute, said Morrison would be bracing himself ahead of this week's Forum. Leaders from low-lying Pacific Islands nations are under threat from rising seas and have called for greater emissions reductions and urgent action on climate change.
“He has to be ready to be the bad guy at the meeting,” said Pryke. “Tuvalu is the most vulnerable and exposed nation to climate change in the Pacific.”
Still, while criticism of Australia's position will complicate relations and make it hard for Canberra to appear genuine, Pryke doesn't expect this to get in the way of its renewed focus on the region.
“Pacific leaders are pragmatic,” he said. “They will use the attention and leverage for their own interests as you would expect any country to do but it won't derail the Pacific step-up.”
Australia is not the only country that has sharpened its focus on the Pacific. New Zealand has dubbed its policy the Pacific Reset and Britain has the Pacific Uplift. Japan, alongside the US and Australia, is spending more on infrastructure in the region.
Australia and the US have pledged to develop a joint naval base on Manus Island in response to concerns about China's growing sway in Papua New Guinea, where it has been spending up on infrastructure projects as part of the Belt and Road Initiative.
The region was also rocked by reports last year, denied by Beijing, that it was seeking to establish a military presence in Vanuatu.
Pryke said there could be “huge soft power value” in Australia's security college, which will be formally launched in September after ANU does more consultation with Pacific Island countries.
In an announcement on Saturday, Foreign Minister Marise Payne said the college would “deliver strategic security and leadership training to Pacific security agencies” and its alumni network would “help build a community of practice on regional security issues" and "support close collaboration on cross-border matters”.
According to the AusTender web site, the contract is worth $19.2 million (US$12.9 million) and runs until September 2022.
The college will be similar to ANU's National Security College, which trains Australian government officials. The US Defence department's Asia-Pacific Centre for Security Studies in Honolulu has run some programmes for training officials in the Pacific but not regularly.
“The college builds on Australia’s historical strengths in that we have been working in partnership with the Pacific for decades,” said Michael Wesley, dean of the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific. “Despite the occasional disagreement, I do think Pacific Island countries trust Australia and are happy to work with Australia.”
He said while the college would have to provide regular reports to the department of foreign affairs and trade (DFAT), “they have left it to us to work out”.
Last year at the Pacific Islands Forum member countries signed the Boe Declaration, which stated climate change was “the single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and wellbeing of the peoples of the Pacific”.
The declaration also said “we respect and assert the sovereign right of every member to conduct its national affairs free of external interference and coercion”.
The idea of a security college was first flagged in the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper.
SOURCE: FINANCILA REVIEW/PACNEWS
Pacific Islands News Association
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