Australian PM Scott Morrison to embark on landmark Pacific trip

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

SYDNEY (AFP) - Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison embarks on a landmark trip to the Pacific on Wednesday (Jan 16), hoping to mend fences and reassert Australian influence as China makes its presence felt in the region.

Morrison 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, Morrison's government has stepped up efforts to secure his country's historic role as a regional powerbroker.

The trip will be "focused on our security, economic and cultural partnerships", said 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 as the next largest donor, New Zealand - but has seen its influence wane.

In response, 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.

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

CHOPPY WATERS

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

"We are having greater cooperation on police matters," the paper quoted 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 hotspot.

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 its force posture - which is currently focused on northeast 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 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 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.

DOMESTIC POLICIES

Facing a difficult election in May, 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 Hayward-Jones.

To add to the difficulty of 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 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, who had been criticised for his involvement in a coup but recently won election, played down talk of a rift.

He described meeting Morrison in Sydney last year as a "pleasure", adding, "I look forward to seeing him again here in Fiji this week".

"As the first-ever bilateral visit by an Aussie PM, this will mark an historic step up in our diplomatic relationship," he tweeted.