Australia needs to boost Pacific focus: academic

Australia needs to offer education to more students in the Pacific as part of its foreign policy soft power contest with China in the region, a leading Australian international relations expert says.

The Deputy Vice-Chancellor (International) of Australia's University of Melbourne, Michael Wesley, recently published a research paper: "What should Australia do about PRC activities in the South Pacific".

It concluded that over the past two decades, the interest and presence of the People’s Republic of China (P.R.C) in the South Pacific has increased considerably.

The research states that using measures similar to those it has deployed in Africa, south Asia, and southeast Asia, Beijing has proclaimed an ambition to promote “South–South cooperation” in the south Pacific. 

It has provided considerable aid to states across Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia, and significant numbers of PRC economic migrants have settled there over the past decades.

One of the recommendations of the research is for Australia should to invest more in education and skills development in the region aiming to create a broad fraternity of Australian alumni.

Professor Wesley told the Samoa Observer in an interview on Friday afternoon that Australia should become more open to the Pacific and particularly to the people of the Pacific.

"I think that where people in Pacific island countries are looking for education opportunities and training opportunities, I think Australia should really look to make it much easier and much more accessible for them to do so," Professor Wesley said.

"That could involve people from the pacific coming to Australia to study or it could also involve Australian institutions doing some training and education in Pacific island countries as well."

That openness should also extend to expanded labor migration schemes, he said. 

Dr. Wesley explained that doing so would create greater familiarity between Australia and its Pacific island neighbors 

Professor Wesley believes that the best type of influence is based on person-to-person influence which he says is more enduring than Government-to-Government influence.

He said China is providing increasing development aid in the Pacific, something he says is to be expected as China is a wealthy country with a large foreign aid budget. 

With China becoming more dominant in the region, Professor Wesley explained that China sees itself as a natural leader of the Pacific region which would like to diminish the influence of what Dr. Wesley called "contending parties".

"I recommended that Australia [also] put a lot more emphasis on Pacific health," he said.

"And so this is an opportunity for Australia to really step up and make a difference to the lives of people in the Pacific."

With COVID-19 spreading, Professor Wesley explained that there is a real opportunity for Australia to help the Pacific access vaccinations and to build the resilience of its health systems to guard against the possible arrival of the virus. 

He said that Australia does not have the financial muscle compared to China, but explained that Australia has to be smart and rely on tactics rather than money in its international relations. 

Professor Wesley said that Australia needs to take climate change much more seriously as it is the number one issue in the region.

During his travels in the Pacific, Dr. Wesley said that the consistent message that he heard was the pressing importance of climate change.

He said that Australia needs to get serious about climate change policy, which is the biggest impediment between Australia and its Pacific neighbors at the moment.

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