Australia’s effort to ramp up relationships with its Pacific island neighbours is not a bid to head off a potentially greater Chinese presence in the region, Foreign Minister Marise Payne has stressed.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has sent a signal to the Pacific about its importance to Australia by making the Solomon Islands his first overseas destination since his federal election victory.
Senator Payne says the visit will reinforce the government’s Pacific “step-up”, which is aimed at building on Australia’s ties with its neighbours.
“Prime Minister Morrison is … 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,” she told ABC Radio National on Monday.
Asked whether Australia was concerned at the idea a Chinese military base could be built in the South Pacific in the future, Senator Payne said that would be cause for Australia to reassess its outlook.
But the potential for an increased Chinese presence in the region was not why Australia was looking at stronger engagement.
“We’ve always said that the establishment of facilities of that nature by other parties … would change and affect Australia’s strategic outlook,” she said.
“But that does not change the focus of our Pacific step-up.
“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.”
Mr Morrison will meet the Solomon Island’s new prime minister, Manasseh Sogavare, in Honiara on Sunday.
He’ll then travel to London to mark the 75th anniversary of World War II’s D-Day, before returning home via Singapore.
The prime minister has also elevated a role focused on the Pacific in his ministry.
Sydney Liberal MP Alex Hawke is set to become international development minister and assistant defence minister, in a bid to build stronger defence and economic ties with the region.
“It will be a very significant role for Australia’s future and I think he has exactly the skills to ensure we’re able to deliver,” Mr Morrison said of Mr Hawke’s new post on Sunday.
The international development job was previously just an assistant ministry role.
Mr Morrison trip also comes after a senior US State Department official on Friday encouraged Pacific nations not to let China influence their diplomatic relationships with Taiwan.
Six Pacific island nations give diplomatic recognition to Taiwan, accounting for a third of its diplomatic allies.
“China is attempting to reduce Taiwan’s diplomatic relations in the region and that’s kind of heavy-handed,” US Acting Assistant Secretary for Southeast Asia W Patrick Murphy told reporters in Canberra.