What does Australia have to offer the Pacific that China doesn't?
Strip all the posturing and electioneering from the Solomon Islands debate and what remains is this single salient question.
In a perfect world, Australia's aid and development agenda would not be seen primarily through the lens of geopolitical struggle with China. But we don't live in that perfect world. So let's work with the context we have.
China's ascent has fundamentally altered the way we view our region. Suddenly we're acutely aware of the very real strategic importance of our Pacific neighbours and the challenges they face in securing social stability and economic growth.
Whoever wins the election is now on notice: a key metric of success will be how they handle relations with our Pacific friends at this critical juncture.
The biggest pitfall to avoid will be thinking the problem can be solved through the ad hockery that has defined our engagement with the region this century.
If we continue to think small and short-term we will simply end up in 1000 individual bidding wars with Beijing. And given China's GDP relative to ours, these are bidding wars we can't count on winning.
So if we want to shore up our status as the preferred partner for the Pacific once again what can we offer that the other mob don't?
In answering this question the best place to start is to look at what Pacific Island nations actually want.
Of course, a definitive answer to this question would be infinitely complex. But we can simplify things by identifying three key buckets.
Firstly, they tell us they want us to get behind their development aspirations for better health, education, infrastructure and job creation. Secondly, they want action on climate change, which they rightly identify as a pressing existential concern. And thirdly, they want what all of us want: to feel respected.
In recent times, Australia has gone through peaks and troughs in delivering against these desires.
We've protected development assistance to the Pacific and delivered a Pacific Step Up. But support to education in the Pacific region has been cut and our engagement has been criticised as self-serving. Overall when it comes to the provision of foreign aid we are one of the least generous nations in the OECD, a trend that has been heading downward.
Labor in this election campaign has promised to do better, putting aid budget increases and a $525 million aid boost to the Pacific and Timor Leste on the table, alongside a Pacific Climate Infrastructure Financing mechanism and Labour mobility reform.
It would represent a solid start. But both parties are underdone on the cleverness we'll need from our development assistance if we're serious about strengthening the ties that bind us to our neighbours and make genuine allies.
So where else can we look to press a relative advantage?
Firstly, we should leverage the breadth of connection we have with Pacific Island nations. Our universities, our labour force, our sporting organisations, and - critically - our churches all have long, established links to the Pacific.
The government should be looking to support and nourish these links in all ways possible. Chinese universities can certainly offer scholarships, but the language and cultural barrier is a huge drawback.
Likewise, China can offer working visas. But given the choice of working in Australia, for Australian wages and conditions, versus the Chinese alternative, the more appealing choice will be obvious to most.
Of course, this must mean Pacific workers who come to Australia must actually be able to enjoy Australian wages and conditions - an area where we have been shown to be falling short in recent years with myriad cases of labour exploitation and abuse. Expanding economic and political linkages that give the Pacific greater access to Australia is fertile ground.
Secondly, we should build on Australia's humanitarian and development assistance, which enjoys an unparalleled reputation in the region.
People remember how we turn up in a crisis like the 2004 tsunami or recent cyclone events. They also remember the quiet and courageous capability of Australians on the ground delivering essential health and education projects alongside local organisations.
Instead of waiting for the next crisis, we should find ways to deepen ongoing development support as fast as possible.
Thirdly, we should reset our development approach so we have the structures to build long-term ties and integrate far-reaching development goals into every strategic decision we make. That means establishing longer term regional development assessments with budgets to match; 10 years would be a suitable benchmark. The Development Minister's position should also be elevated onto the National Security Cabinet.
The point is we need to get development off the sidelines and deep into the main game. When it comes to Australia's hard strategic interests in the Pacific it's our soft power connections and pro-development credentials that constitute a key advantage.
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.