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Christopher Pyne: We're Already Doing More Than Enough In The South Pacific

I don’t know why it still surprises me.

But some elements of the Australian media’s self-loathing about Australia’s contribution to the world, in this case, the South Pacific, was on full display this week during and after the Pacific Islands Leaders Forum in Tuvalu.

Understandably, the Pacific Island leaders are concerned about the effects of climate change on their island states. In some cases, it represents an existential threat. We are all concerned. The Australian Government has taken real steps to ensure it meets its carbon emission reduction targets agreed to as part of both the Kyoto and Paris Agreements. We should be proud that Australia has the highest investment in renewable energy per capita of any country in the world.

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Understandably, the Pacific Island leaders are concerned about the effects of climate change on their island states. (Image: AAP)

There are major issues to be addressed in our region. One of them is climate change. There are others, like national security, illegal fishing, employment and economic hardship that also demand our attention.

In their rush to join the chorus of criticism of Australia, our detractors failed to note that Australia is engaged in the largest step up of its commitment to the South Pacific in its history.

The South Pacific Step Up is a significant whole of government increase in our engagement and participation in the South Pacific.

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It builds on the US$1.5 billion Pacific Patrol Boat Programme through which Australia will gift 21 Guardian Class Patrol Boats to the island states of the South Pacific and to East Timor to assist them to protect their economic exclusion zones from poachers, illegal fishers, drug and people smugglers.

The South Pacific Step Up recognises that Australia is “vuvale” or “family” to the nations of the South Pacific.

The South Pacific Step Up recognises that Australia is “vuvale” or “family” to the nations of the South Pacific. (Image: AAP)

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The South Pacific Step Up has numerous layers:

* A Pacific Mobile Training Team that will be headquartered in Australia but rotate throughout the region to train and assist the countries of the South Pacific in growing their capability.

* A dedicated large hulled vessel that will operate permanently in the South Pacific helping to respond to natural disasters and humanitarian needs that will be in addition to the Royal Australian Navy increasing its deployments in the region.

* We will convene an annual meeting in Australia of defence and police chiefs and facilitate the attendance of representatives of the South Pacific nations to exchange views and share knowledge.

The launch of the first of Australia's new fleet of patrol boats destined for our Pacific neighbours. (Image: AAP)

* Australia has an extensive alumni network throughout the South Pacific of military, academic, industry and civil society leaders that has been allowed to exist to date without what I call “sharpening the saw” -- in other words, keeping the relationship fresh and ready to be engaged as necessary. Along with increasing the sporting opportunities between the Australian Defence Force and the island militaries, these people-to-people links are vital in building and keeping relationships strong.

* Australia will open five new High Commissions or Embassies in the South Pacific, making us the only nation with individual diplomatic representation in every South Pacific capital.

The South Pacific Step Up is a significant whole of government increase in our engagement and participation in the South Pacific. (Image: AAP)

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* Australia will assist the countries of the South Pacific to build their defence and policing infrastructure:

* in Fiji, Australia has agreed to redevelop Fiji’s Blackrock Camp into a regional centre for police and peacekeeping training and pre deployment preparation;

* in Vanuatu, Australia will deliver significant infrastructure upgrades for the Vanuatu Police Force and create a redeveloped Vanuatu Mobile Force;

* in Papua New Guinea, Australia will combine with the government there to develop the Lombrum Naval Base on Manus Island into a joint facility for the PNG Defence Force and the Royal Australian Navy;

* in the Solomon Islands, Australia is majority funding and constructing the Coral Sea Cable System that will link the telecommunications systems of the Solomon Islands and PNG, in the process creating 300,000 new jobs in the South Pacific by 2040 through improved connectivity, security and governance.

All of this comes at a financial cost. But to build capability across our region, it is worth it. To show our vuvale in the South Pacific that we aren’t solely rhetoric but also real action, it is worth it.

There is a place for rhetoric and posturing. But the people of the South Pacific deserve a great deal more. (Image: AAP)

This very real commitment to the national security and defence of the South Pacific, to its economic future and the protection of its fisheries and environment, to creating jobs and economic infrastructure is more than any other country is doing in the South Pacific, or has done for a very long time. It is a lot more than anything some of our critics have ever done or will do in a practical sense.

There is a place for rhetoric and posturing. But the people of the South Pacific deserve a great deal more.