HomeLifestyleShowing up matters: Why Albanese must keep travelling
Showing up matters: Why Albanese must keep travelling
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After a tiring fortnight of international travel – a state visit to Washington followed by a breakthrough meeting with Xi Jinping in Beijing – Anthony Albanese could be forgiven for wanting a few days’ rest at home and the opportunity to focus on domestic issues.
Instead, the prime minister’s diplomatic adventures are continuing with a two-day visit to the Pacific Islands Forum in the Cook Islands. With its spectacular coral reefs and dazzling beaches, Rarotonga is hardly a hardship destination, but Albanese deserves credit for showing up to this important regional grouping.
Rarotonga in the Cook Islands will host the Pacific Island Forum. Credit: Cook Islands Tourism
In making the trip, he has wisely ignored the juvenile and increasingly frequent complaints from opposition politicians and talkback radio hosts dubbing him “Airbus Albo” and accusing him of spending too much time outside the country.
Just as misguided: those calling on Albanese to take his eye off Australia’s immediate region, the Asia-Pacific, in favour of a symbolic solidarity visit to Israel, a part of the world where we have little clout.
Australia is the major player in the Pacific, with a population size, economy and military strength that dwarfs that of the other nations.
Australia’s Pacific pre-eminence is facing an immense challenge from an autocratic superpower that does not share our values. China is playing an increasingly active role in the region, funding major infrastructure projects across the island nations. The national security risk this poses to Australia became clear last year when volatile Solomon Islands leader Manasseh Sogavare signed a security pact with Beijing, sending Canberra policymakers into a panic.
Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare has alarmed Australian policymakers by signing a security pact with China. Credit: Reuters
The fact Sogavare and three other leaders are not attending this year’s forum is unfortunate, but further underlines the significance of Albanese’s decision to attend.
(Sogavare has said he is too busy preparing for the Pacific Games later this month, Vanuatu’s prime minister Charlot Salwai is responding to a cyclone and New Zealand’s incoming prime minister Christopher Luxon is trying to negotiate a coalition government. Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape has not explained why he is not attending.)
Though he would never say so publicly, China’s deepening interest in the region is the reason why it was vital for Albanese to travel to Raratonga, where he touched down on Wednesday morning. After cosying up to Xi in Beijing, Albanese has immediately pivoted to curtailing China’s Pacific influence and cementing Australia’s status as the partner-of-choice for regional leaders.
The nightmare scenario the government is seeking to avoid is the establishment of a Chinese military base in the Pacific, a prospect that would put major Australian cities squarely in the range of Beijing’s rockets. This would be a strategic disaster for Australia, but it’s a prospect Canberra policymakers are taking seriously. Indeed, it’s a key reason why the government is overhauling the Australian Defence Force to focus on long-range strike capabilities and investing in nuclear-powered submarines under the AUKUS pact.
Albanese often says the “entry fee for credibility” in international relations is meaningful action on climate change. Nowhere is that more true than in the Pacific, where many nations face an existential threat from rising sea levels. While he will not be able to go as far on climate as Pacific leaders would like, Albanese is set to make important climate finance announcements during the trip to bolster Australia’s commitment to tackling global warming.
The government is also on the verge of legislating a new Pacific visa lottery that will deepen Australia’s integration with the region.
Being a Pacific power carries a responsibility to be invested over the long term, not simply taking an interest in the region when things go wrong. The simple act of showing up matters in foreign affairs, as it does in so much of life.
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