Solomons first trip for re-elected Australia PM amid China tensions
Re-elected Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s first foreign trip will be to the Solomon Islands, in a move to cement the Pacific as Canberra’s strategic priority amid growing Chinese influence in the region.
Morrison’s visit to the Solomons next week will come after he elevated the Pacific back to a full ministerial role on Sunday, appointing to the position a close ally who will also serve as assistant defence minister.
“I think the prime minister’s decision to visit the Solomon Islands is an absolute reinforcement of the importance of our Pacific ‘step-up’,” Foreign Minister Marise Payne told national broadcaster ABC on Monday.
“And… most importantly, saying to our family in the Pacific, our neighbours in the Pacific, this is where Australia lives and this is what is important to us.”
Australia’s views the Pacific islands as its backyard and there have been ongoing tensions between Canberra and Beijing as China flexes its muscle — including billions of dollars in investments — in the region.
Beijing was also reportedly mulling the construction of a military base on Vanuatu.
US State Department official Patrick Murphy, who visited Canberra last week for meetings with his Australian counterparts, said the idea of a Chinese military base in the South Pacific was troubling.
But Payne said the push for stronger Australian involvement in the Pacific was not triggered by Beijing’s increased presence.
“We’ve always said that the establishment of facilities of that nature by other parties… would change and affect Australia’s strategic outlook. But that is not the focus of our Pacific step-up,” Payne said.
“It goes to people-to-people links, it goes to education, it goes to infrastructure development, it goes from church to church relationships, it goes to Pacific labour mobility. So it’s much, much broader than that.”
Morrison’s visit to the Solomons will be the first by an Australian prime minister since Kevin Rudd’s in 2008.
The islands are heavily reliant on foreign aid and among the few countries to give Taiwan diplomatic recognition.
Beijing views Taiwan as a renegade province and both have vied for diplomatic influence in the Pacific for decades.