SYDNEY (AFP) – South Pacific nations have been “very positive” about Canberra’s “re-engagement”, Australia’s new prime minister has said, as China undertakes a region-wide diplomatic offensive that is raising concerns among Western powers.
The comments from Anthony Albanese – aired on Sunday (May 29) in an interview with Sky News – came as Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was visiting Fiji for closely watched meetings with the island nation’s leaders and others from across the region.
Wang, who began his South Pacific tour on Thursday in the Solomon Islands, is expected to discuss a wide-ranging draft agreement and five-year plan that would dramatically expand security and economic cooperation with South Pacific nations.
But Albanese said Australia’s own renewed diplomatic push had been well-received.
“The response has been very positive,” Albanese said when asked about Pacific leaders’ reaction to recent efforts, including a visit to Fiji last week by new Foreign Minister Penny Wong.
The prime minister said Australia’s previous government had “dropped the ball” on the Pacific, both in terms of aid and also “a non-engagement on values”.
“For our Pacific Island neighbours, the issue of climate change is an absolute national security issue,” Albanese said.
In addition to increased action on the environment, he also touted a boost in aid and a plan to set up a defence training school in the Pacific.
During Australia’s recent election campaign, Albanese’s centre-left Labor party said the school would involve forces from Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Tonga, Timor-Leste, Vanuatu and Solomon Islands.
Meanwhile, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang is expected to remain until at least Tuesday in Fiji’s capital, where he is to host a meeting with foreign ministers from across the Pacific.
The draft agreement and a five-year plan leaked ahead of that meeting, both obtained by AFP, would give China a larger security footprint in the region.
Australian Foreign Minister Wong warned Pacific leaders about the deal last week during her visit to Fiji.
“We have expressed our concerns publicly about the security agreement,” she said.
Beijing last month signed a wide-ranging pact with the Solomon Islands that Western governments feared could give China a military foothold in the region.
Source: Straits Asia