Step-up with China in the Pacific on climate change and development aid

By Dermot O’Gorman

Palm trees in storm

The Pacific cannot afford to wait for Australia’s domestic politics to align in its favour. It needs consistent and concerted support from its neighbours, including through a strong aid program guided by a comprehensive and properly resourced climate change strategy.

Australia has recognised the need to adjust its approach to development in the Pacific, particularly with respect to its changing relationship with China. The ‘Pacific Step-up’ is becoming a whole of Government approach to rethink our relationship with our Pacific neighbours. However, rather than trying to directly compete with China, we should embrace a range of approaches to the region. If we want a healthy relationship with the Pacific, those approaches must centre around us taking significant climate action and an inclusive development approach. If we want a healthy relationship with China, essential for regional stability, we must seek to collaborate on approaches to international development aid that reflect the Sustainable Development Goals, rather than treating the development of our closest neighbours like a geo-political chess board.   

Since graduating out of the development aid paradigm nearly a decade ago, Australia and China’s relationship has deepened in complexity. Hawkish tactics alone risk shutting down new diplomatic opportunities to find common ground through international cooperation, trade partnerships and cultural exchanges. The recent establishment this year of the new National Foundation for Australia and China Relations is a great example of how to strengthen our relationship and broaden communication channels.  

Australia’s Pacific step-up has largely been focused on the perceived threat of China’s growing influence in the Pacific. The highest profile action being into infrastructure investment via the Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific. Experience in Africa and other parts of Asia would show that this is unlikely to fully succeed. Our foreign policy should certainly speak with an Australian accent, but so too should Australia be open to learning from others. 

The political realisation that China has spent a decade growing investments and influence in the Pacific has finally pulled Australia’s geo-strategic interests back into the political mainstream. It is positive that our Government has responded with the Pacific step-up whole of Government approach that presents a chance to both re-set the special relationship with our Pacific neighbours and redefine that with China.

After nearly two decades of living and working in China, the Pacific and Australia, I agree Australia must consider the serious security implications of China’s growing economy and military influence. But it must not fall into the trap that seeks to frame China as a monomaniacal looming threat. There are a few key issues that will determine the success of our Pacific step-up and beyond.

Why a climate step-up in the Pacific is essential to our national interests

One specific issue has lowered our reputation in the eyes of Pacific leaders and communities – our lack of domestic action on climate change. It detracts from Australia’s assistance effort in the Pacific over many decades. For all the positive outcomes Australian aid has delivered, our country’s continued inaction on climate change (not to mention tasteless jokes about water lapping at the door) undermines not only DFAT’s Pacific Strategy, but our political standing with Pacific leaders. 

It is not as if those leaders have not been clear. In a May 2019 statement, they said: “All countries, with no caveats, must agree to take decisive and informative action to reduce global emissions, and ensure at scale mitigation and adaption support for those countries that need it. If we do not, we will lose, we will lose our homes, our ways of life, our wellbeing and our livelihoods. We know this because we are experiencing loss already.”  It’s hard to comprehend why our own political leaders don’t see the cause and effect between climate inaction and growing Chinese influence in the Pacific.

By continuing to work closely with New Zealand, Australia can do more as a global champion alongside our Pacific neighbours. While DFAT has a very strong track record of support to Pacific islands and our Foreign Affairs White Paper is very clear on the strategy, it is often contradicted by political rhetoric and our own lack of emission reductions. To be a champion will require direct action.

First, acting quickly at home to reduce our emissions and transition out of exporting thermal coal will show Australia has heard Pacific leaders. Reducing Australia’s pollution by 45 per cent on 2005 levels by 2030 and reaching net-zero pollution by 2050 would be a good start, but it is the bare minimum. We must also commit to a just transition to phase out thermal coal exports by 2030.

Second, Australia must accept that Pacific Islanders will always be the owners of what they now call Pacific Ocean States. This means acknowledging they retain enduring sovereign rights over their islands and seascapes, despite the current interpretation of international law of the sea, which questions the ownership of Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) once islands are submerged. 

Third, we need to rebuild the overall aid program which should have both the Pacific Step-up and a comprehensive climate change strategy at its heart. It’s essential Australia expands programs that are helping Pacific nations build resilience and adapt to climate change impacts. DFAT has been working on a strategic framework for integrating climate change action across Australia’s aid program for more than three years but that strategy has languished in the Minister’s office for the last six months. The Pacific cannot afford to wait for Australia’s domestic politics to align in its favour. It needs consistent and concerted support from its neighbours, including through a strong aid program guided by a comprehensive and properly resourced climate change strategy. A strategy that goes beyond climate-proofing hard infrastructure to address the deeper impacts of the climate emergency on biodiversity, nutrition, health, and the livelihoods and wellbeing of ordinary people.

Providing voluntary migration opportunities and humanitarian visas are good steps but in a worst-case scenario we should now be considering ways of granting Australian permanent residency for the entire populations of nations at greatest risk. As former prime minister Kevin Rudd points out in his February 2019 essay, this would currently include Tuvalu, Nauru and Kiribati - the combined populations of which are less than half of Australia’s annual regular migration intake. However, I disagree with Rudd’s suggestion that such arrangements should come at the cost of Pacific nation EEZs. Rather, this safety net should be careful planned now with our neighbors as an act of solidarity, humanity and mateship.

How Australia must engage on Chinese aid

Australia must accept that increased investment into the Pacific will come not only from China but other Asian economies as well. It is however important not to overstate their influence. Beijing committed only eight per cent of total aid to the region between 2011 and 2018. Australia should not try to compete with these rapidly emerging powers in their strengths. Instead, we must play to our own strengths and seek opportunities for mutually beneficial collaboration.

For decades, we have demonstrated our strength lies in a commitment to proper governance in many sectors; capacity building in areas like health, education, climate, fisheries and gender; our diaspora of Pacific Islanders who call Australia home; and our shared cultural values. These strengths mean we have a role beyond funding to be a champion of the Pacific. There are real regional security issues, like Chinese ports, to be very firm about, but forming technical partnerships with the new Chinese International Development Agency on issues like health, education and climate adaption infrastructure can also build technical and diplomatic bridges.  

Trilateral development cooperation can also play a role. But it must not be predicated only on the interests of and opportunities available to China and Australia. The first test for any trilateral approach must be that it is in-line with the development ambitions and needs of the Pacific and strengthens - not duplicates - efforts already under way. 

China and Australia already have some experience working trilaterally with a Pacific Island development partner, having recently concluded a three-year Australia-China-Papua New Guinea Pilot Cooperation on Malaria Control. This brought together Chinese expertise and in-kind contributions, and Australian Official Development Assistance to support PNG’s public health institutions to improve malaria diagnosis. With more than 95 per cent of PNG people living in high-risk areas, this is a key development issue and the sort of  geo-politically neutral issue to which Australia and China could contribute in a non-competitive fashion.

Working together to help sustainably manage natural resources and infrastructure in the face of a changing climate would be another great way for China and Australia to support the region’s sustainable development in a non-competitive way. It would be in line with the White Paper’s Ocean policy, plus the recently launched Asian Development Bank Action Plan for Healthy Oceans.

DFAT’s work in the Pacific on climate change has, up until recently, been largely hidden from a previous Government’s ideology that was keen to remove all climate projects from the national budget. The new $75 million Australia Pacific Climate Partnership is a great example of Australian capacity for climate action and disaster resilience in the Pacific. This is part of a much bigger commitment in the Foreign Policy White Paper to strengthen the Pacific’s response to the climate emergency and could present numerous geopolitically neutral opportunities to collaborate with China in the Pacific.

Another opportunity for development cooperation is inshore and coastal fisheries: the key source of food and nutrition security which contributes almost as much to Pacific economies as the more commercially lucrative (and often contested) offshore fisheries. Sustainably managed coastal fisheries can also provide high-value products that are in-demand among Chinese consumers, such as sea cucumber. However, the Secretariat of the Pacific Community has estimated that 75 per cent of the region’s coastal fisheries will not even meet local food security needs by 2030. Good governance and technology will play a crucial role in solutions to these challenges.

Just as there are things that Australia may be able to teach China’s new aid agency about designing and delivering effective aid projects, we should also be open to learning from China. After all, it is a country which has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in just a few decades.

Good ideas are never completely new. This is true of listening and learning from each other. The Australia-China Bilateral Climate Change Partnership was established back in 2004 and even advanced under the Abbott Government. There were lessons learnt, but as China’s understanding of development aid and climate has become significantly more sophisticated than in the 2000s, this partnership should also be revisited. 


The changing geo-politics of our region are a reality we need to embrace. That must come with an acknowledgement that we have been both distracted from our special relationship with the Pacific and have damaged it with our domestic climate inaction.

We need to have a balanced approach between Australia and China in which we listen to the needs of the Pacific. The previous imbalance of our hawkish approach will only increase the tension and threaten the other important trade and development elements of our complex relationship with China. There are real security concerns, but to make them the centrepiece of our Pacific Step-up will neither re-build our damaged relationship with the Pacific nor deliver for our or the Pacific countries’ interests in the long term. A domestic climate step up is key to this, or our Pacific step-up will fail.  

DFAT has already opened the door to a trilateral approach to the Pacific at a meeting between Australia and China’s foreign ministers in November last year. While it is not yet clear what this might look like, any such approach must have the needs and sovereignty of Pacific nations at its heart, with a spirit of talanoa and meaningful action guiding it. Perhaps here, climate change adaptation represents a 'sweet spot' between these two needs. Just as China has embraced climate action as an opportunity at home, so too could it be an opportunity for Australia, China and the countries of the Pacific to forge broader cooperation. 

This will, of course, require a significant scaling-up of Australia’s aid program and a renewed focus, both for China and Australia, on sectors that are aligned with Pacific country priorities and are geopolitically neutral enough to facilitate collective action rather than competition. Australia has a very high standing in the region, but to step back from development aid and climate action will not deliver the type of region we need now nor one our children will inherit.


Dermot O’Gorman is Chief Executive Officer of the World Wide Fund for Nature Australia. Between 2001 and 2010 he was the CEO of WWF in the Pacific, and then China.

Disruptive Asia is a thought-leadership project by Asia Society Australia launched in 2017. It presents – through long-form essays – new perspectives and policy recommendations on how Asia’s rise is impacting Australia’s foreign policy, economy and society and how Australia should respond. Disruptive Asia deliberately looks at both external aspects of Australia’s relationship with Asia (foreign policy, business connectivity, international education) and their domestic implications and manifestations (community relations, leadership diversity, education settings and capabilities).

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