SYDNEY • Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said yesterday he will visit the Solomon Islands next week, as Western nations seek to rein in China's influence on the tiny Pacific island.
With the United States and its allies keen to ensure China does not increase its foothold in the Pacific, protecting diplomatic recognition for self-ruled Taiwan has emerged as a flashpoint in regional ties.
"China is the Solomon Islands' largest trading partner and this is adding a lot of pressure on lawmakers to switch allegiances," said Mr Jonathan Pryke, Pacific Islands programme director at the think-tank Lowy Institute.
The Solomon Islands is one of a handful of Pacific countries to recognise Taiwan, a policy now in question after recent elections. China views Taiwan as a renegade province with no right to state-to-state ties.
Last Friday, a senior US official said Washington would help Pacific countries in the face of China's efforts to influence them. Those remarks threaten to inflame tensions between the US and China already heated by their trade war, US sanctions and China's increasingly muscular military posture in the South China Sea.
Mr Morrison's first overseas trip since winning re-election this month will also be the first time an Australian prime minister has visited the Solomon Islands since 2008. "The Pacific is front and centre of Australia's strategic outlook," Mr Morrison said in an e-mailed statement.
Australia and China have been vying for influence in sparsely populated Pacific Island countries that control vast swathes of resource-rich oceans.
Keen to undercut China's Belt and Road Initiative, Australia has directed ever larger amounts of its foreign aid to the region.
Last year, Australia said it would spend US$139 million (S$191 million) to develop undersea Internet cable links to Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, amid national security concerns about China's Huawei Technologies.
That year, Australia became the first country to ban the world's largest maker of telecom network gear from its nascent broadband network, a step the United States followed this year by effectively banning US firms from doing business with Huawei. In November, Australia offered Pacific countries up to A$3 billion (S$2.9 billion) in grants and cheap loans to build infrastructure, as Mr Morrison declared the region was "our patch".
Australia has won favour through its spending commitments but its support of its dominant coal industry is a sore point for many in the region.
Mr Morrison will travel to London from the Solomon Islands and visit Singapore on his journey home.