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Book Review: Tides that Bind: Australia in the Pacific

Declan Hourd

Source: Australian Institute of International Affairs

Tides that Bind: Australia in the Pacific is a short but passionate declaration that advocates for Canberra to improve its relations with the Pacific Island Countries (PICs) and embrace its role as a regional leader. Published in 2021, the book is rooted in the profound personal experience that Richard Marles has had in the Pacific region both personally and in his professional capacity as the Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs during the Gillard Government. Now he is the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence. Sitting in these influential portfolios, Marles is provided the opportunity to influence Australian foreign policy and advocate his ideas laid out in this book.

A core theme of the book lies in re-establishing Australia as a prominent fixture of the Pacific. In recounting interactions with international counterparts, he highlights that the world views Australia as an expert of Pacific affairs. Yet within our domestic discourse, we don’t seem to recognise this.

Marles muses on why this dissonance has occurred. He starts at the grass roots and observes a decline in people to people relationships beginning in the 1970s as waves of decolonisation and independence saw PICs regain control of their countries. In retrospect this was an opportunity to facilitate growth and strengthen our neighbouring democracies. However, as Australians who lived across the South Pacific returned home, the interest of Canberra policymakers' in the Pacific waned. This has only recently started to shift with junior diplomatic staff revitalising interest in the region - viewing it as a launchpad to a more prestigious posting in Asia, Europe, or the US. There must also be a shift in who manages Australian relations with the region to avoid a depletion of systemic knowledge of the region and its people. Currently Australian relations are managed by first assistant secretaries - rather than the decision makers and their advisors.

In Australia’s absence a variety of challenges have engulfed the region. Climate change is the first that comes to mind. Rising sea levels shrink the shallow coastlines and furious storms devastate homes, cultural sites, and contaminates drinking water. Moreover, PICs face a variety of governance and economic issues that range from law and order, political legitimacy, and social development. These observations are made by Marles' interrogation of the chronic underachievement of the Millennium Development Goals across the region. The wealth and standard of living of the average Australian stands in stark contrast to their Pacific Island equivalent.

Marles argues that if Australia reorients its relationship with PICs it can give Australia more foreign policy options in the wider world long term. Improving the Pacific will be a springboard for a more expansive foreign policy that incorporates small island states around the world. Canberra can look west to its Indian Ocean coast to work with the Seychelles or Maldives, with the possibility to embark on joint ventures in those countries with India. Similarly, the Caribbean provides ample opportunities to enhance intra-Commonwealth relations and opens avenues to work with the United States. Broadly, success in the Pacific would mark Australia as a nation that has capacity and expertise in international development.

Unquestionably, the book is designed to push Australian Pacific policy in a more fruitful direction. However, this is not a dry telling of a troubled region. Marles aims to put the human experience at the heart of his pitch. He takes great effort to describe the school choirs that greet international delegations, his time as a schoolboy in Papua New Guinea, vibrant cultures, and the toll tropical storms take on drinking water reserves. Only after establishing this people oriented narrative does Marles put forward his desired solution. In his view there are four policy areas where Canberra can quickly provide substantial support: climate policy, defence cooperation, increasing access to the Australian economy, and developmental assistance.

The Tides that Bind is an unpretentious entry point into Australia’s relationship in the Pacific. It is very approachable and offers an insider’s insight into how policy is formulated. The current federal government has already embarked on improving its relationship with the region, and this book may have already outlined what policy watchers could expect to come.


Declan Hourd holds a Master of International Relations where he graduated with excellence from UNSW in 2020. He is keenly interested in the geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific. He was a correspondent for the Organisation of World Peace and contributed to its Crisis Index. As Regional Correspondent for Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific he aims to shine a light on our under discussed near and abroad.