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Australians watching Pacific with concern and care

Australians believe China now has more influence than Australia in the Pacific islands. One third of Australians rate China as the most influential player in the region, according to the Lowy Institute Poll 2024. That is slightly more than those who think Australia has the most sway.

Polls of Pacific islanders support this view and offer further insight. A recent ANU survey in Samoa asked which country had the most influence in the Pacific. Similar to the Lowy Poll, 58% thought China was in the lead, compared to only 7% giving the top spot to Australia.

But one needs to dig a little deeper to understand these results, particularly for Australia, the largest Pacific development partner, because not all influence is viewed in the same light. Just over half of Samoans in the ANU survey thought China’s influence was positive, compared to an eye-popping 92% who rated Australian influence well. Another measure of positive influence is trust. In a Tongan poll by the Tupou Tertiary Institute, 63% and 54% have “a great deal” of trust in New Zealand and Australia respectively, while only 10% trust China.

Why is trust in China so low? Beijing’s push for repayment of Tonga’s huge debt despite a pressing need for public spending on health and education could be at play. Allegations of Chinese influence-buying may also be causing concern. For example, in both Solomon Islands and PNG there are allegations of money politics being used to clinch development deals, resource access and security partnerships.

The Lowy Poll is evidence of public support in Australia for more climate policy ambition and innovation.

So far China has not secured a military base in the Pacific islands (a worry for 87% of Australians in the 2023 Lowy Institute Poll), but inroads are being made. There are now Chinese police embedded in Solomon Islands and Kiribati police forces conducting “capacity building”. Tonga is courting Chinese police engagement for the next Pacific Island Forum meeting, and the door to closer security ties is still open in PNG, Fiji and Nauru.

The worry for Australia is not just Chinese “boots on the ground” but how Chinese engagement might undermine its own cooperation with the region via Pacific-wide security cooperation agreements, data and intelligence sharing, security operations and governance.

It seems many Australians think their government could do more to engage with the region, and an area of focus in this year’s Lowy Poll was migration. Two-thirds of Australians support relaxing visa requirements for Pacific islands migrants. That view is shared by Pacific islands people who have repeatedly asked that the Australian visa system be simplified and made more welcoming. The new Pacific Engagement Visa opens the door to 3000 migrants annually to come to Australia on a more permanent basis than the current temporary labour mobility scheme, but more work needs to be done to reduce remittance costs.

This desire to open migration pathways extends, in particular, to those who are climate vulnerable. According to the 2024 Lowy Institute Poll, 68% support making it easier for the citizens of climate-vulnerable Pacific Islands countries to migrate to Australia. Pacific Islanders would rather more climate action to reduce emissions and alleviate the need to move, but current climate predictions are grim and options are needed.

The Australia-Tuvalu Falepili Union deal opens a special migration pathway for one neighbour most at risk and provides a legally binding security guarantee. After some sovereignty jitters about the deal and sharp criticism, new Tuvalu Prime Minister Feleti Teo endorsed it. His Australian counterpart Anthony Albanese referred to it as “ground breaking”. It is unlikely others in the region will get similar climate deals, and unlikely they would want it. But at least the Lowy Poll is evidence of public support in Australia for more climate policy ambition and innovation.

From a Pacific perspective, they would rather more climate action to reduce Australian emissions and alleviate the need to move. This year’s Lowy Poll indicates many Australian agree, with 72% saying they would support “a more ambitious national emissions reduction target”, but disappointingly that is down 5% from 2022. There was a similar 5% fall in support for a joint Australia-Pacific islands hosted COP31, the international climate meeting in 2026. These results are likely driven by cost of living pressures but may prompt those demanding evidence of stronger Australian climate commitment to increase their reticence to support a joint COP.

This year’s Lowy Poll reveals an awareness of geopolitical changes in the Pacific Islands, and a willingness to support constructive action on migration for our climate-vulnerable neighbours. Australians understand strengthened relations and more mobility will make our region more stable and prosperous. But on the most significant security issue for Pacific islands people, climate action, the slide in climate action ambition will disappoint.

Download the 2024 Lowy Institute Poll and explore two decades of Poll data on its interactive website.




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