The recent announcement of the Solomon Islands-China security agreement has caused quite a stir in Canberra and Washington, even being described as Australia’s worst foreign policy failure since 1945 by the Labour party – which was then still in opposition. Whilst much of the concern has focused on the future security dimensions of this agreement, and how they may threaten Australian and US interests in the Pacific through an expansion of Chinese influence, the agreement is also a case study in how Western failures in assuming credible climate-action leadership are damaging their influence and diplomatic standing in regions of strategic significance.
Although the importance of climate action has risen within the political priorities of Western capitals in the last decade, it arguably still takes a back-seat in foreign policy. This leaves an opening that some actors – such as the People’s Republic of China – have been happy to exploit. To prevent a large-scale loss of influence in key regions, therefore, the major Western actors (here conceptualised to include the European Union, the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand) urgently need a strategy change.
Australia and the US: Failing the Pacific Nations
For the Solomon Islands, along with most other Pacific island nations, the climate crisis poses an existential threat to survival. As such, they do not have the luxury to treat the climate crisis as a non-priority. Consequently, Pacific island states have been some of the most vocal proponents of international climate action, as seen in their strong support for the 2017 Paris Agreement, their attempts to build regional bodies to coordinate joint solutions, and the legal action taken for recognition under international law for the harm done by climate change. The Western response to these efforts, however, has caused severe frustrations.
The US has long been the dominant player in the Pacific, extending all the way back to the Second World War, since which it has issued security guarantees to the region’s island nations and sought to foster economic cooperation. In recent years, however, the region has been diplomatically neglected by Washington despite a wider foreign-policy pivot to the Indo-Pacific region. Troublingly, the US climate actions – among them the temporary withdrawal from the Paris Agreement during the Trump administration – have demonstrated a lack of urgency, willingness, and credibility in its climate leadership. Although the Biden administration has increased American efforts in combating climate change, the domestic political situation in the US does not bode well for reliable international environmental leadership from Washington, making it an unpredictable partner for Pacific nations. While the response to China’s forays in the region from the American foreign policy establishment has been largely framed in security terms, policy-makers would be well-advised in heeding the fact that security and climate-security are intrinsically linked for Pacific Island nations.
Even more notably, Australia, traditionally the leading nation from within the region due to its economic, political, and territorial standing, has failed to live up to the expectations of its regional partners. Obstructive Australian conduct in regional climate negotiations, which runs counter to the country’s signature of the 2018 Boe Declaration that identifies climate change as the regional priority issue, has severely damaged its regional diplomatic standing and leadership role. This was demonstrated, for instance, when Australia nearly caused an abandonment of negotiations during the 2019 Pacific Island Forum over its defence of intense coal-use and limited emissions-targets – both of which are not only extremely harmful for the environment, but contribute to condemning the Pacific Islands to large-scale losses of their territory and livelihoods. While Australia remains the main economic and political partner of most of the region’s nations, climate-driven frustrations are slowly eroding this standing – a fact that has been recognised by the new Labour Party government and led to the launch of a diplomatic push to repair ties and restore Canberra’s influence. Whether this policy push proves fruitful will, ultimately, depend on its sincerity and the resources allocated to it.
Beijing has been able to capitalise on American and Australian policy failures so far, with many Pacific island nations finding it a more credible regional partner on climate change and development than either Australia or the US. While this shift is also driven by economic incentives, the climate aspect cannot be disregarded as a key factor. In the eyes of Pacific nations, China’s commitment to reaching the goals of the Paris Agreement, as well as pledges to assist in the mitigation of the impacts of the climate crisis have shown local elites that Beijing is taking their concerns seriously and acting with greater resolve than traditional allies. Coupled with a diplomatic charm offensive by top Chinese officials, this has swayed numerous islands to support Chinese foreign policy goals, with Kiribati and the Solomon Islands severing official ties with Taiwan. Policy-makers in Canberra, Washington, and Wellington fear that this presents the beginning of a wider shift towards China among the islands’ policy elites, and that proposed security and economic agreements will ultimately lead to Chinese economic dominance – or, worse even, Chinese military bases being established. Although the leaders of the Pacific Islands rejected a comprehensive multilateral security partnership with China in late May, broad agreement on climate issues and disaster management within the draft agreement should spark worry and further action among Western capitals.
Lessons from the Solomon Islands
What the Solomon Islands case shows is that a lack of consideration for the concerns of nations bearing the brunt of the climate crisis undermines the overall strategic goals of Western nations. The importance of climate action in international politics is only going to grow in the future, having already seen intense and prolonged effects in many countries – predominantly located in the global south. Desertification in North Africa and the Sahel, sustained heat waves and floods in South Asia, and concerns of island nations about their existence due to rising sea levels and the collapse of maritime ecosystems are but a few examples of acute climate-induced events in regions with strategic and developmental importance whereby environmental concerns are already politically paramount – and likely to increase.
If the EU, UK, US, and Australia do not urgently help addressing these challenges, solutions will be sought elsewhere with strategic rivals. Considering the larger shared foreign-policy priorities, such as the prevention of an expansion of Chinese influence and the promotion of the ‘democratic model’, climate action needs to occupy a more central role in their diplomatic efforts and would complement the aforementioned objectives. To this end, afflicted nations need to be engaged proactively and at a high-level, not only through reactive diplomatic efforts when another power offers up an alternative that threatens Western influence. Furthermore, credibility needs to be restored or strengthened by actively committing to and meeting the aims of the Paris Climate Agreements. Only once such actions are pursued, and affected nations feel that their concerns are being understood and acted upon, can further losses of influence like in the Solomon Islands be prevented.
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