Australia’s influence in the Pacific is eroding and the government should tone down its security focus in the region, an international expert has warned.
University of Adelaide’s Joanne Wallis said while Australia had tried to counter a rising China with a beefed up military presence, it was cutting crucial services.
“Although Australia has vital strategic interests in the Pacific Islands, our influence has eroded,” Professor Wallis told a parliamentary inquiry on Wednesday.
“‘Our Pacific partners do not necessarily share or appreciate an oversecuritised view in the Pacific islands region.”
Australia should reverse its scrapping of shortwave radio services which the Pacific relied on during natural and humanitarian disasters, she said.
“It was a very poor decision,” Prof Wallis said.
China had stepped into fill the void with its own radio programming, depriving Pacific nations of Australian voices, she said.
Prof Wallis cautioned against heavily arming patrol boats donated to the Pacific that were used to crack down on illegal fishing.
She said this could see Pacific nations quickly get in over their head if they attacked fishing vessels from other countries.
“Sometimes there’s a a lesser evil in allowing a vessel to get away,” she said.
Pacific students completing their masters degrees in China saw their education shaped by a country with views different to Australia’s, Prof Wallis said.
“It’s a wasted opportunity,” she said.
Australia wasn’t automatically seen as inherently good by Pacific leaders, Prof Wallis said.
Australia’s defence engagement was one of its most influential tools.
“But it can also be a model for other states to follow as well,” Prof Wallis said.
“That’s why we need to stay ahead of the game.”
She said military chaplains could have a bigger role to play in the heavily-Christian region.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander defence personnel could also play a bigger role as they shared closer cultural ties with the Pacific, Prof Wallis said.