Solomon Islands has signed a security pact with China and set off a flurry of foreign policy chatter in Australia and the region. Understandably, the focus of the discussion is on why this has happened, what this means, what to do next, and of course, because Australia is in the midst of an election campaign, who should be blamed.

The major players in Australia all acknowledge that Solomon Islands as a sovereign nation has the right to enter into agreements with any other nation of its choosing. And this fact is an important anchor to the question what to do next, because evidently Australia has work to do if it is to be the security partner of choice in the region.

Regardless of what you think of the pact itself, its existence and the ensuing concern says the quiet part out loud – China has intentions in the region and Australia and its allies, namely the United States, are directly interested in constraining those intentions.

The thing is, Australia keeps going about it in ways that don’t seem to be accruing “partner of choice” status. Instead, over a period of time, the strategy seems to be to try and “out China, China”. From infrastructure investment facilities, increasing the percentage of the Australian aid program spent in the Pacific, and upgrading military and security arrangements à la AUKUS, Australia continues to accept that the only form of power that matters is military and economic might. And yet, Australia simply does not have the resources to win at that game. Such is the reality of being a middle power. But Australia does have power, nonetheless. And the goal now should be to amplify that power rather than play a game where the inevitable outcome is Australia’s own diminishment (in relevance, influence and security).

In considering what comes next for Australia, it is time to think seriously about re-writing the rules of the game.

Because, when the rules of the game are stacked against you, “winning” isn’t generally achieved by beating the odds, but rather, from changing the game. This is exactly what is needed now from Australian foreign policy.

Rather than being prescriptive, a feminist foreign policy approach is indicative and offers some guidance for how we can re-write the rules and re-establish Australia as a security partner of choice.

Perhaps the message of the Solomon Islands-China security pact is that for Australia to become a partner of choice it is about not only listening, but truly hearing. In its interactions with the Pacific Australia needs to learn, and also unlearn. And it needs to do more than partner with its neighbours, but to act in solidarity with the region. In other words, Australia should be prepared to give a little in order to get a lot by way of common purpose.

And there is a fairly good playbook to draw on, and an established and growing cohort of states who have already begun the work. Feminist foreign policy – an approach adopted by nine countries so far, in Sweden, Canada, France, Luxembourg, Mexico, Libya, Spain, Germany and Chile – offers a good starting point for how the rules of the game might be re-written. Because, at its core, feminist foreign policy is a framework for grappling with systems of power – from the interpersonal systems of power that govern gender relations to the global systems of power that govern state interactions.  

Rather than being prescriptive, a feminist foreign policy approach is indicative and offers some guidance for how we can re-write the rules and re-establish Australia as a security partner of choice.

Listen to hear

It is not from a lack of telling that keeps Australia from hearing its partners. One only needs to engage with the output of the Pacific Islands Forum to see that Pacific Regionalism has been well articulated and regional priorities outlined – covering the gamut from trade, governance, economic grow, Covid-19 response and security, and of course climate change. In fact, perhaps the very first thing Australia needs to hear, and really absorb, is that for the Pacific, no threat looms larger than climate change. Any meaningful partnership on security must grapple with that fact.

Learn and unlearn

This ties nicely into the second practice Australia needs to demonstrate. Unlearning is a vital precondition to acting together for common purpose.

In this case, Australia should unlearn the myth that state security is somehow paramount, or in fact, meaningful, when absent of the necessary human security for citizens within the state. From acting on climate change, including loss and damage, in a meaningful way to improving gender equality and eliminating violence against women, human security needs to be pursued as if it matters. After all, human security is the foundational unit of national security – without it, national stability will be under threat. And because human beings are gendered, human security is inherently gendered, as well. There is a collective need to unlearn the idea that foreign policy is gender-neutral.

Solidarity over partnership

And finally, Australia should be prepared to act in solidarity. This is distinct from being an ally or a partner. The latter two lack a built in requirement to work to rebalance systems of oppression. They can be done within the confines of the current rules. While that may hold some short-term advantage, in the long term, the rules of the game need rewriting.

Solidarity, in contrast, will require Australian humility, and reflexivity. This means considering the ways in which current systems afford Australia national privileges. It also requires consideration of how those same systems oppress and marginalise other states. The Australian government should be prepared to give a little – increase its development cooperation budget to 0.70 cents in every $100 of gross national income; contribute a fair share of climate finance; meaningfully address climate mitigation at home; and, improve representativeness and fairness in global governance for starters. The net benefit will be improved human and regional security.

That is the only outcome that is viable in the long term.

The Lowy Institute is part of the  Pacific Research Program