As the major democratic power in the region, Australia has a compelling political and economic responsibility to maintain a strong presence in the Pacific. Pacific states, particularly Papua New Guinea and Fiji, are emerging as regional powers and are increasingly active on the international stage. The region itself is also becoming more crowded: the population of is expected to grow by 49% by 2040, primarily because of a large ‘youth bulge’. Already a third of the working-age population is between the ages of 15 and 24 years.
Connectivity in the Pacific is a key issue. It is currently delivered through a combination of mobile and fixed networks, with connections to international networks through satellites or undersea cables. Most Pacific countries have invested or are investing in undersea fibre optic cables as a lower-cost, higher-capacity and more reliable long-term option. The connection of broadband cables to each Pacific country will help stimulate local business through improved connectivity, boost e-commerce and reduce transaction costs. It is understood that the region will have full connectivity in the next few years, presenting big opportunities for governance, service delivery and economic development. However, it is unclear how or who will extend connectivity beyond the main delivery points e.g. larger cities.
Whilst discussions have been focussed on the investment in and providing the necessary infrastructure to enable improved connectivity, there is an opportunity for Pacific leaders to hold facilitated discussions around current policy and the prospects generated from improved connectivity.
The primary engagement between Australia and the Pacific is ‘first track’ diplomacy which is necessary and important for formal policy dialogue and relationships. The application of a complementary ‘second track’ approach by ICDP can assist in enabling the forging of genuine long-term relationships between Pacific and Australian current and future leaders.
The ICDP’s ability to leverage existing connections, assets, expertise and good-will can increase and nurture different and genuine partnerships. In its two-year pilot phase, commencing on 1 October 2017, the Pacific Connect theme is ‘Building Australia-Pacific Connections for the Digital Future’ and the initiative will focus on six countries in the Pacific: Fiji, Samoa, PNG, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Tonga.