In December, I gave a presentation to the Australian Naval Institute on naval diplomacy and defence engagement in the Asia-Pacific, with an eye on the upcoming Defence White Paper (DWP).

Solomon Islands Police Maritime Unit personnel on Australian supplied Pacific Patrol Boat (Photo: Aust Defence Image Library)

All too often, we take the 'Pacific' half of the Asia- and Indo-Pacific formulations as shorthand for East Asia, leaving out Melanesia and Polynesia in spite of their importance to Australia and New Zealand's security. Perhaps this is because we think that Pacific Island Countries (PICs), though prone to instability and crises locally, are insulated from the strategic rivalries that buffet the wider region.

If there is still some elemental truth to this, the arrival of a major Russian arms shipment in Fiji, with a military training mission to follow, should be a sufficiently shocking event to jolt complacent assumptions about the residual sway that Canberra and Wellington have in their maritime 'backyard'.

As outlined in the excellent post by Anna Powles and Jose Sousa, 'Russia ships arms to Fiji: What will be the quid pro quo?', the Russia-Fiji military deal is meant to be limited to Fiji's UN peacekeeping role. There are no tangible indications yet that a Russian or Chinese strategic presence in the South Pacific is on the horizon. It may never come to that, and we need to remember that the Russian deal was initiated by Fiji. Nonetheless, Russia's move back into a region that it has neglected since the Cold War is worrying on several counts and lays bare the diminishing limits to the influence of Canberra and Wellington, not just in Fiji, but across the South Pacific.

It is in this context that Canberra needs to re-evaluate its defence engagement in the region, not simply as a capacity-building adjunct to development assistance, but in support of strategic Australia's interests. The Pacific Maritime Security Program, incorporating the Pacific Patrol Boat (PPB) initiative, is the most important engagement instrument of all, currently operating across 12 countries: Papua New Guinea (PNG), Fiji, Tonga, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Kiribati, Samoa, Vanuatu, Micronesia, Palau, Marshall Islands and the Cook Islands. Prospects for Timor Leste joining the program are delicately poised. Right now this appears to be hostage to bilateral frictions in a further reflection of Canberra's wavering influence in the neighbourhood.

Apart from PNG, the common denominator for PPB participants is a tiny population and landmass relative to their vast exclusive economic zones (EEZ). While some need assistance more than others, none have much more than a rudimentary offshore patrol capability. The existing boats are not always properly utilised, as noted by Karl Claxton, but without a replacement capability, PICs will be less able to safeguard the marine resources that hold the key to their economic sustainability as independent states.

The existing PPB hulls, supplied from the late 1980s onwards, were given a mid-life refit during 1997-2003, but are now approaching the end of their service.

The objective of the replacement program is for 21 boats, built in Australia, to start replacing the current fleet from 2018. A request for tender, issued in March 2015, called for larger and more capable patrol boats, with a range of 2500 nautical miles, capable of going to sea for 20 days. This has led to a shortlist of two Australian-based bidders: one in Cairns, the other in Western Australia.

With an initial $600 million capital outlay, it is estimated that the PPB replacement will cost $1.4 billion to sustain through a 30-year lifetime. Granted, that is not small change. But, put in perspective, it is less than the unit cost of one Canberra-class Landing Helicopter Dock.

As a return on this investment, Australia stands to receive a number of direct and indirect benefits accruing from the original PPB program:

  • Influence and access. Once transferred, the patrol boats become sovereign assets of the PICs. However, the presence of 24 Australian and 2 New Zealand naval staff provide ongoing access in the recipient countries at operational and, potentially, political levels.
  • Maritime security assistance from Canberra makes recipients less beholden to external capacity building offers that are inimical to Australia's interests. It also puts Australia and New Zealand in a stronger position to cooperate with China and Russia in the South Pacific, as well as like-minded partners like Japan and South Korea.
  • Improved maritime security capacity in the South Pacific can assist in conflict prevention, including in potential flashpoints such as Bougainville, where PNG and Solomon Islands currently lack the capacity to patrol their maritime border.
  • Increased patrolling within PIC EEZs will help to disrupt the ruinous losses from illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. Giving small island states the wherewithal to protect their living and non-living marine resources is essential to weening them off aid. Smuggling is also a major drain on government revenue.
  • The PPB effectively and cheaply extends the range of Australia and New Zealand's maritime surveillance by hundreds, if not thousands, of miles. This has important advantages not only for defence, but for law-enforcement and border protection.
  • It also adds significantly to the reach of search and rescue, reducing the burden on Australia and New Zealand to respond to maritime and humanitarian emergencies in the South Pacific.

When the DWP is eventually released, I doubt the immediate focus will be on the South Pacific. Once the dust has settled, however, I hope that the Pacific Patrol Boat replacement will feature as a funded priority for Australia's defence engagement. Otherwise, someone else might soon be eating lunch in the backyard.