Canberra announces fund for South Pacific nations

Reuters, BEIJING and SYDNEY

Fri, Nov 09, 2018 - Page 1

Beijing and Canberra should be cooperating in the South Pacific and not be cast as strategic rivals, China’s top diplomat said yesterday, after Australia launched a multibillion-US dollar fund to counter China’s rising influence in the region.

Standing alongside Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne, Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi (王毅) made the conciliatory remarks after a meeting in Beijing widely billed as a step toward resetting bilateral ties after a lengthy diplomatic chill.

Wang said that he had agreed with Payne that the two nations could combine their respective strengths and embark on trilateral cooperation with Pacific island countries.

“We are not rivals and we can absolutely become cooperation partners,” Wang told reporters, describing the meeting as important after recent “ups and downs” in the relationship.

Payne said the discussions were “valuable, full and candid.”

“We’ve realistically acknowledged today that in a relationship as dynamic as ours ... there will be from time to time differences,” she said later at a separate news briefing. “But what is important about that is how we manage those and we are focused on managing them respectfully, mindful of the tremendous opportunities the relationship presents to both our nations.”

Ties became strained late last year, when then-Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull accused China of interfering in its domestic affairs.

However, even as his foreign minister visited Beijing, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison characterized the Pacific as its domain while offering the region up to A$3 billion (US$2.19 billion) in cheap infrastructure loans and grants.

“This is our patch, this is our part of the world,” Morrison said in his most detailed foreign policy speech since becoming prime minister in August.

Speaking in Queensland, Morrison said that Australia would invest in telecom, energy, transport and water projects in the region.

He also said that Australia would expand its diplomatic presence in the Pacific, posting staff to Palau, the Marshall Islands, French Polynesia, Niue and the Cook Islands.

There are also plans to strengthen Australia’s defense and security ties with Pacific islands through joint exercises and training.

Morrison did not name China in the speech, but analysts said it was a clear response to China’s spreading influence.

“Australia is reacting to what China is doing. Australia needs more tools to engage with the Pacific,” said Jonathan Pryke, a Pacific islands foreign policy expert with the Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank.

China has since 2011 spent US$1.3 billion on concessionary loans and gifts to become the Pacific’s second-largest donor after Australia, stoking concern in the West that several tiny nations could end up overburdened and in debt to Beijing.