Four days after being sworn in as Minister for Foreign Affairs, Senator Penny Wong was in Suva, delivering a speech titled “A new era in Australian engagement in the Pacific”.  

In the speech to the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, Senator Wong acknowledged that Pacific leaders have been crystal clear that climate change is the single greatest threat facing the region, and declared that the newly elected Albanese government would “stand shoulder to shoulder … with our Pacific family in response”.   

Within a year, Senator Wong had visited 30 countries, including all Pacific Islands Forum members, while Australia’s domestic political and financial climate commitments have increased. But is it enough to repair relations in the Pacific, and can it be sustained?


Climate diplomacy and a Pacific “step up”

Dr Wesley Morgan and Dr Tess Newton Cain see Senator Wong’s engagement in the region as promising. In their policy brief from 2020, Strengthening Australia’s relationships with countries in the Pacific region, they argued:

“The single most significant thing Australia could do to improve relations with Pacific island countries would be to take meaningful action on climate change—including through the introduction of domestic policies to reduce emissions, and the pursuit of ambitious middle power diplomacy to drive global emissions reductions. It is difficult to overstate how critical the issue of climate change is to Pacific island countries.”

Dr Newton Cain notes that Senator Wong’s renowned work ethic has been on display as she has traversed the region getting an intensive reintroduction to Pacific politics, diplomacy and culture—including drinking kava with grace. That said, in the Pacific, there is a degree of scepticism that this can be maintained and evolved to deepen and strengthen critical relationships.   

Far from being small, vulnerable nations that need our help, the Pacific nations are global leaders in climate action and, with 14 members in the UN, represent an influential bloc that Australia would benefit from a genuine partnership with. Failing to deepen and broaden engagement in the region is not just culturally insensitive, it’s strategically inept.

COP31: a reputation makeover opportunity for Australia? 

Chris Bowen, the Minister for Climate and Energy, announced in 2022 that Australia would bid to co-host the UN climate conference, COP31, in partnership with the Pacific. If the bid is successful, it would represent the biggest diplomatic event in Australia’s history, with between 20,000 and 40,000 delegates expected to attend. But it would also come with an expectation from Pacific nations that Australia would go further with its commitments to tackling climate change.   

While Australia’s climate commitments have strengthened under the Albanese government, they are still some of the developed world’s least ambitious. As Dr Morgan notes, our domestic emissions trajectory is not compatible with keeping global warming to 1.5°C this century.  And, Australia provides less than it’s fair share of climate finance to help developing countries address the impacts of climate change.

More than 100 countries have committed to net zero targets, and climate action has shifted to become a centrepiece of industrial policy in major economies. Although Australia has been reluctant to commit to bold climate policy, it has endorsed the Blue Pacific strategy, which outlines the objective of a fossil fuel-free Pacific by 2050.  

Co-hosting COP31 would be a chance to revive Australia’s international reputation and reposition us to embrace the benefits of a global clean-energy economy. It would also provide an opportunity to demonstrate that Australia is serious about being a security partner of choice for the region—and that we recognise the security threat posed by climate change. After all, with more than half of Australia’s Defence Force personnel being called out to  natural disasters since 2019, it is clear that we are facing the same threat.

A turning point?

Dr Morgan believes that we are in the midst of a global shift, as major powers—the US, China and the EU—realise that influence in tomorrow’s economy is linked with leadership in clean energy.  He notes: 

“The world is slowly but surely shifting away from fossil fuels. When historians look back, they will likely see the 2015 Paris Agreement as the key pivot point. It achieved a global consensus on climate action and set the goal for nations to decarbonise by mid-century.”

Improved relations in the Pacific may just be the motivation Australia needs to find its place and take a leadership role.

Tropical Cyclone

Beyond climate

Historically, Australia’s engagement in the Pacific has been episodic and crisis-led. In part, this is influenced by the fact that Australians themselves are not sure if the country is part of the Pacific. Dr Newton Cain argues that while we often hear about capacity-building in the Pacific, we seldom hear about how that applies to understanding the region and improving our Pacific literacy here at home.   

Evolving the conversation beyond the intertwined contexts of climate and security, while developing understanding of our place in the region—not our “backyard” but rather our neighbourhood—will be critical for Australia’s future. Because this is where we live.   


Dr Wesley Morgan is Research Coordinator at Pacific Connections (Australia) and an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University, a Research Associate at the Development Policy Centre, Australian National University and an Honorary Research Fellow at the East Asia Security Centre, Bond University. He is also a Senior Researcher at the Climate Council of Australia.

Dr Morgan’s research interest includes contemporary geopolitics and diplomacy in the Asia Pacific; Pacific islands and international politics of climate change and oceans; development and trade policy; agriculture in the Pacific islands; human mobility/migration; human rights. He has recently co-authored two policy briefs with Dr Tess Newton Cain, published by the Griffith Asia Institute—Activating greater trade and investment between Australia and Pacific island countries and Strengthening Australia’s relationships with Pacific island countries.

Dr Tess Newton Cain is a Senior Research Fellow and the Project Leader for the Griffith Asia Institute’s Pacific Hub. Within that role she assists with curation for the Pacific Outlook section of the Griffith Asia Insights blog.

Tess is a dual citizen of Vanuatu and the United Kingdom. She is a former Lecturer in Law at the University of the South Pacific. She has lived and worked in the Pacific islands region for almost 25 years, with most of that time spent living in Vanuatu.

Tess’ research interests focus on politics, policy and development in the Pacific islands region. She has provided research. strategic advice and policy support to national governments, regional organisations (including the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat) and development partners (including the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the United Nations, and the governments of Australia and New Zealand).

13: Climate Action
UN Sustainable Development Goals 13: Climate Action