Strengthening Australia’s strategic relationship in the Pacific

This is an edited summary of a keynote address delivered by the Hon. Christopher Pyne MP at the inaugural Pacific Connect Forum, held at NSW Parliament House on 6 September 2018.

The Hon. Christopher Pyne MP acknowledged the traditional owners of the land and his colleagues in attendance. He stressed the importance of support for Pacific Connect and ICDP across the Pacific and thanked its Board members for their work. He saw the Sydney Forum as timely, coming the day after the Pacific Islands Forum stressed the need for regional security and collaboration. Australian defence forces are being strengthened to uphold the international rules-based order and maintain regional peace and security.

The Australian Government is determined to strengthen relationships with like-minded partners in the South Pacific and across the Indo-Pacific region. Australia has longstanding and ongoing connections to the Pacific, and the Forum has assembled a remarkable group of people to further those relationships.

The 2016 Defence White Paper and 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper stress the high priority the Australian Government places upon improved engagement with PNG, Timor Leste and Pacific Island nations. The Pacific Islands encompass a maritime realm covering 15% of the world’s surface, and the opportunities and challenges facing the Pacific are as vast as the ocean itself. The region’s unique scale and geography mean Australia and Pacific nations must collectively address rising sea levels, disaster relief, transnational crime, illegal fishing, and an array of other problems from a regional perspective.

In an effort to deepen Australian security and economic integration with the rest of the region, Australia is embarking on a ‘Pacific step-up’ to strengthen these connections as they grow ever-more important in an increasingly globalised region The government has backed the laying of undersea cables to connect PNG, Vanuatu, Samoa and other countries in the Pacific, but defence also plays a pivotal role in achieving this aim.

Australia’s Defence Cooperation Programme (DCP) delivers capacity building assistance to 30 countries around the world, including 13 in the Pacific and Timor Leste region. The Pacific and Timor Leste Defence Cooperation budget is approximately $130 million for the current financial year and represents 80% of the total DCP budget worldwide, demonstrating Australia’s commitment to the stability and security of the region. The Pacific assistance includes more than 80 defence advisers in situ to mentor their local counterparts, exercises, infrastructure and short and long-term training and education courses inside and outside Australia.

The Australian Government is committing a further $2 billion to the Pacific over the next 30 years through the Pacific Maritime Security Programme (PMSP). The PMSP forms the centrepiece of Australia’s defence engagement in the Pacific and succeeds the Pacific Patrol Boat (PPB) programme, through which Australia gave 22 patrol boats to 12 participating Pacific Islands between 1987 and 1997. The PMSP builds on that success and will replace those patrol boats, integrate aerial surveillance and enhance regional coordination.

The Australian Department of Defence will give 21 Guardian Class patrol boats to Pacific Islands and Timor Leste over the next five years. The keel of the first vessel was laid in 2017, and HMPNGS Ted Diro (P401) will be delivered to PNG in January 2019. The Guardian Class boats are designed for Pacific maritime patrol and incorporate the functional and technological lessons learned from the PPB programme, having more size, capability and range than their predecessors.

The PMSP will also enhance regional maritime security through aerial surveillance of the western and central Pacific. Long-range aircraft will support targeted, intelligence-driven maritime patrols and help Pacific states locate and disrupt illegal activity within their exclusive economic zones and adjacent high seas. The first two King Air 200 aerial surveillance aircraft are now based in Samoa and Vanuatu and will use up to 10 forward operating bases each year; 300 hours of surveillance has already produced 174 sightings which were referred to the Regional Fisheries Surveillance Centre.

Operation Frigate Bird saw a joint maritime patrol of Nauru’s exclusive economic zone involving King Air 200 aerial surveillance, the Kiribati Patrol Boat RS Kirini and fisheries protection personnel from both Kiribati and Nauru. The exercise demonstrates how regional cooperation supported by Australian Defence is improving connections and security across the Pacific.

Australia’s previous Minister for Defence, Senator the Hon. Marise Payne, attended the Pacific Islands Forum in Nauru and announced that Australia will collaborate with its Pacific partners to establish a Pacific Fusion Centre to strengthen maritime domain awareness and inform regional responses to shared security challenges. The Centre will work with Pacific countries and existing regional organisations to aggregate and analyse security information and inform responses to security challenges, such as illegal fishing, people smuggling and drug trafficking.

This announcement supports the third aim of the PMSP to improve regional coordination by encouraging the sharing and use of information generated by patrols and national organisations. Participating countries will be able to collect, analyse, manage and share maritime security information across their national agencies and with neighbouring countries and the regional coordination centres.

The PMSP and the new Fusion Centre offer just two examples of the Australian government’s partnership activities to respond to security challenges across the region. It has also announced a partnership with Fiji to build a new forward deployment base for peacekeeping activities, police, emergency services and training in Fiji. Minister Pyne thanked the Forum’s organisers and was pleased that ICDP has fulfilled his initial hopes for it. He remembered working with the US Congress-funded National Democratic Institute in Washington DC and undertaking in-country assessments of civil societies around the world. Its approach was also based on dialogues, but Australia has lacked this capability until now. The Minister praised DFAT’s support of Pacific Connect and pledged to help ICDP and Pacific Connect in his role in Defence. He looked forward to hearing more about ICDP activities and engaging with participants in the future.

Hon. Christopher Pyne MP

Hon. Christopher Pyne MP

Minister for Defence

Christopher Pyne was elected to the House of Representatives for the seat of Sturt in 1993. Christopher is the Minister for Defence, and Leader of the House of Representatives. Christopher has been a Minister in the Howard, Abbott and Turnbull Governments serving as Minister for Ageing; Minister for Education and Training, Minister for Industry Innovation and Science and Minister for Defence Industry.In his time as a Minister he has been responsible for delivering the $200 billion build up of Australia’s military capability, the largest in our peacetime history, and delivered the National Innovation and Science Agenda.