The dust-up at the Pacific Islands Forum was not simply a zero-sum game between the Pacific and Australia over coal. While this may have been the tip of the spear, it went to a far deeper divide over climate and development assistance that has now dramatically been exposed and will continue to hamper Australia’s ability to ‘Step Up’ regional engagement. Australia has so far only upset its friends, opened the door further to China, and trashed its global reputation.
To be clear, the Pacific was not asking Australia to get rid of coal. It was simply asking Australia to endorse a statement by the UN Secretary–General that countries should be working to phase-out fossil fuels. A statement that is central to the Paris Agreement’s long-term goal to reach net zero emissions by 2050, which the current Australian government signed up to. If Australia really ‘does what it says it will’, it would have signed the statement.
Sure, Australia might not have as many coal mines or use as much coal as is often portrayed, but it is backsliding big time when it comes to embracing the long-term transition that needs to take place — including for its own workers. Some of the biggest coal producers in the Asia Pacific have started making great strides away from it and Australia is perilously close to placing our economy on a structural footing for long-term failure if it does not do the same.
The Pacific Islands Forum draft resolution was also simply asking Australia and New Zealand to join in increasing the first round of targets submitted under the Paris Agreement in 2015 when decarbonisation looked much more difficult and expensive than it does now. Given Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government says it is on track to ‘meet and beat’ its target, this should have been a relatively easy statement to endorse.
The Australian government also seems to have conveniently forgotten that along with the rest of the world, it has a legal obligation under the Paris Agreement to review the level of our national ambition next year — something some in the Pacific like the Marshall Islands (and shortly Fiji) have already done. Others like the European Union, India and China are now considering it. A special climate summit in New York later this month is designed specifically for countries to make these new commitments or to outline them. But Australia — yet again — seems determined to isolate itself on the world stage.
The Pacific was also asking Australia to abandon an accounting trick that allows it to ‘carry over’ unused carbon credits from previous international commitment periods to fulfil our targets — going to the very heart of whether we are in reality meeting those targets. Australia hasn’t used that in the past and shouldn’t need to. At the very least, the Morrison government could have undertaken to review its use of these credits as countries look at their targets next year. But instead, Australia is left looking like a slippery used-car salesman, trying to make things look better than they are.
That Prime Minister Morrison chose to double down on his government’s recalcitrant position, rather than at least acknowledge that climate change is an existential concern for many island states, was perhaps the biggest problem of all. It was utterly tone deaf. That’s why Pacific island leaders reacted in the way they did, compounded by Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack’s borderline racist slur in the days that followed and lingering memories of Morrison’s own presence during the ‘boom mike’ incident.
In the case of the AU$500 million Morrison announced for climate change adaptation, this is simply putting a new label on something that had already been allocated. Australia’s regional neighbours are not dumb. They follow all this in detail. As they do the government’s overall performance on development aid delivery in the region. When my government left office in 2013, our aid to the Pacific island states stood at AU$1.2 billion per annum. By 2015, the Liberal-Coalition government had halved it to AU$620 million. For small economies, these cuts were felt acutely.
It deeply damaged the reputation Australia had crafted over many years as a country that treated its friends in the Pacific with genuine respect. Australia had acted as their partners in global climate negotiations, always putting the interests of small island states to the fore. Just as signing the Kyoto Protocol was my first act in office, one of my last acts in September 2013 was to endorse our signing of the ‘Majuro Declaration for Climate Leadership’ at that year’s Pacific Islands Forum. That Declaration is widely acknowledged as one of the key building blocks for the campaign that led to the Paris Agreement.
By contrast, Pacific leaders are now talking about kicking Australia out of the Forum. Not since John Howard’s declaration about being George W Bush’s deputy sheriff in South East Asia has Australia’s regional standing been so damaged in a single week.
However, the best evidence of the damage that has been done to Australia’s regional standing is in China’s new public language in the region. The sheer fact that the foreign ministry called out Australia as a ‘condescending master’ of the region shows not only that the door to the Pacific has been edged ever more open, but that there is now mileage in Beijing directly and publicly pitting itself against Australia in a way it never has before. By its own actions, the Australian government has left the region as a political vacuum that China is now likely to seek to occupy.
It was always Australia’s moral authority — its reliability as a development partner and a robust advocate on the region’s behalf on climate — that underpinned the strength of its position. All that is now in tatters. I fear the Tuvalu Forum in August 2019 will go down in the history of Australian foreign policy as a fundamental turning point in undermining its enduring national interests in the Pacific — a region of primary strategic and military significance to Australia. All as one, gigantic strategic own-goal by a government criminally indifferent to the nation’s and the region’s future.
Kevin Rudd is President of the Asia Society Policy Institute. He served as the 26th prime minister of Australia.