Aussie PM on trip to mend fences in Pacific

Prime Minister Scott Morrison will become the first Australian leader in decades to visit Vanuatu and the first ever to visit Fiji. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Landmark visit seen as effort to counter China's growing influence in region

SYDNEY • Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison embarks on a landmark trip to the Pacific today, hoping to mend fences and reassert Australian influence as China makes its presence felt in the region.

He will become the first Australian leader in decades to visit Vanuatu and the first ever to visit Fiji, where he is due to deliver a major speech on Friday.

In the face of increased Chinese influence - and, some suspect, creeping militarism - across the Pacific Islands, Mr Morrison's government has stepped up efforts to secure his country's historic role as a regional power broker.

The trip will be "focused on our security, economic and cultural partnerships", said Ms Anne Ruston, a junior minister responsible for international development and the Pacific.

Australia is by far the region's largest trade partner and donor - providing quadruple the amount of aid of the next-largest donor, New Zealand - but has seen its influence wane.

In response, Mr Morrison has committed to basing more Australian diplomats in the Pacific, increasing investment and security cooperation, and developing a military base in Papua New Guinea.

Ms Jenny Hayward-Jones, an analyst at the Lowy Institute, an independent think-tank, describes a "sense of panic in Canberra that China's growing influence in the region is now threatening Australian interests".

In Vanuatu, one topic up for debate will be domestic security, local newspaper the Daily Post reported, suggesting Mr Morrison will open an Australian-backed police training college.

"We are having greater cooperation on police matters," the paper quoted Vanuatu's Foreign Minister Ralph Regenvanu as saying.

The tiny island chain of just over a quarter of a million people has become an unlikely geopolitical and security hot spot.

Australian and American officials believe Chinese construction and investment on the island includes plans for an eventual military base.

 
 

Such a facility could dramatically alter the balance of power in the Pacific, compelling Washington and Canberra to reconsider their force posture - which is currently focused on North-east Asia.

Pacific leaders, well aware of their new-found desirability, are likely to try to leverage competition between powers to gain concessions and investment.

But Mr Morrison's trip has been made more difficult, coming as it does against the backdrop of testy relations between Canberra and the Pacific Islands, with disputes about governance and the importance of tackling climate change.

Australia is among the world's largest polluters per capita and Mr Morrison's centre-right government has downplayed the implementation of climate targets and refused to limit the extraction of coal.

Many Pacific islands see rising sea levels and intensified weather systems as an existential threat and would like Canberra to act.

Facing a difficult election in May, Mr Morrison could struggle to square his domestic and foreign policy agendas. It is "domestic policies that prevent Australia from following through on commitments made to Pacific island countries", said Ms Hayward-Jones.

To add to the difficulty of Mr Morrison's trip, his government was recently embroiled in an embarrassing dispute with the government of Fiji over its decision to unilaterally cancel the Australian citizenship of suspected Islamic State in Iraq and Syria group operative Neil Prakash on the grounds that he also held Fijian nationality through his father. Fiji denied that Prakash was a citizen.

But Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama played down talk of a rift. He described meeting Mr Morrison in Sydney last year as a "pleasure", adding: "I look forward to seeing him again here in Fiji this week."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 16, 2019, with the headline 'Aussie PM on trip to mend fences in Pacific'. Print Edition | Subscribe