Aussie PM Scott Morrison visiting Pacific islands to bolster relations

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his wife, Mrs Jenny Morrison, being welcomed to the National Archives and Library in Port Vila, Vanuatu, by residents yesterday.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his wife, Mrs Jenny Morrison, being welcomed to the National Archives and Library in Port Vila, Vanuatu, by residents yesterday.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Morrison's trip to Vanuatu, Fiji comes amid worries over China's growing influence

Mr Scott Morrison arrived in Vanuatu yesterday in a rare visit to the Pacific by an Australian Prime Minister to try and bolster ties amid concerns about China's growing influence in the region.

During the three-day trip, Mr Morrison will also visit Fiji.

After meeting Vanuatu Prime Minister Charlot Salwai, Mr Morrison said Australia would provide support in the areas of disaster and cyclone relief, telecommunications, energy, transport and water.

Significantly, Canberra would also move to allow the importation of kava, a mildly intoxicating drink made from the kava shrub that is a major export for Vanuatu and is popular among Pacific islanders in Australia.

Mr Morrison said Australia and Vanuatu have pledged to deepen their defence and police ties, and are working on a bilateral security treaty that covers issues including drug trafficking and illegal fishing.

"We will work together to support a Pacific region that is secure strategically, stable economically and sovereign politically," he added.

Mr Morrison's trip follows media reports last year that China was planning to build a military base in Vanuatu. The claim, although staunchly denied by China and Vanuatu, added to growing concerns about Australia's failure to focus on relations with surrounding countries in the South Pacific.

BUILDING RAPPORT

We've become aware suddenly of China's rise in the Pacific, which has been happening for many years... In the Pacific, personal relationships matter a great deal and personal relationships between leaders are really vital. So that's something that Morrison is going to have to establish.

DR STEWART FIRTH, an expert on the Pacific, describing Prime Minister Scott Morrison's trip to the Pacific islands as an attempt to play catch-up.

Vanuatu is heavily indebted to China, which reportedly accounts for about 40 per cent of the island's public debt. This has raised concerns that Beijing could effectively end up controlling assets or holding sway over Vanuatu if it cannot repay its loans.

Mr Morrison is accompanied on his trip by Mr Nick Warner, head of the Office of National Intelligence, which coordinates the intelligence community and reports directly to the premier.

Mr Morrison insisted yesterday that his trip was not designed to ward off China as a partner of choice, telling reporters: "We're here because we are for the independent sovereignty and prosperity of Vanuatu, because they are our Pacific neighbours and family. That is why we're here."

Though some analysts have suggested that fears of Chinese influence in the Pacific are overhyped, the concerns - which have received much media coverage - have clearly led to a renewed focus in Canberra on the region.

Late last year, Mr Morrison declared a "step up" in relations with the Pacific islands, including a A$3 billion (S$2.9 billion) package to boost military engagement and to establish a bank to help fund local transport, water and other projects. These included plans to set up diplomatic postings in tiny Pacific nations such as Palau and Niue.

Canberra also agreed to spend about A$137 million on an underwater telecommunications cable linking the Solomon Islands to Australia and Papua New Guinea in an apparent move to block Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei from developing the project.

China's ties have spread across the region, including a growing loans programme. An analysis by the Lowy Institute shows that China committed about US$1.8 billion (S$2.4 million) in aid to South Pacific islands between 2006 and 2016, though this is less than Australia's provision of US$7.7 billion.

Typically, Australian foreign ministers - rather than prime ministers - make visits to foster ties with Pacific nations. Yet Mr Morrison has opted to make the trip, even though he is behind in the opinion polls just months before elections and badly needs to focus on his domestic standing.

 

An expert on the Pacific, Dr Stewart Firth from the Australian National University, yesterday described the trip as a bid to play catch-up. "We've become aware suddenly of China's rise in the Pacific, which has been happening for many years," he told ABC News.

"In the Pacific, personal relationships matter a great deal and personal relationships between leaders are really vital. So that's something that Morrison is going to have to establish."

Mr Morrison's trip to Fiji is the first bilateral trip by an Australian prime minister.

The visit is expected to include discussion about Neil Prakash, who was born in Australia and fought for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Canberra stripped him of his Australian citizenship on the basis that he was also a Fijian citizen because of his father. But Fiji was never consulted about the move and has since denied that Prakash, who is in prison in Turkey, is Fijian.

The issue has renewed a perennial criticism that Australia adopts a paternalistic approach to its smaller Pacific neighbours.

Mr Morrison will be hoping that he will not only clear up the status of Prakash, but also demonstrate a capacity to show respect for Australia's Pacific partners.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 17, 2019, with the headline 'Aussie PM visiting Pacific islands to bolster relations'. Print Edition | Subscribe