Newly elected Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said Pacific leaders have been “very positive” about his government’s renewed engagement, even as Beijing continues its diplomatic blitz across the increasingly contested region.
The comments from Albanese — aired yesterday in an interview with Sky News — came as Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi (王毅) visited Fiji for closely watched meetings with the island nation’s leaders and other Pacific foreign ministers.
Wang, who began his South Pacific tour on Thursday in the Solomon Islands, is expected to discuss with his fellow foreign ministers a wide-ranging draft agreement and five-year plan, which was leaked last week.
The leaked drafts, obtained by Agence France-Presse, were circulated to at least 10 Pacific nations ahead of the Fiji meeting, sparking concern about Beijing’s ambitions to dramatically expand security and economic cooperation within the South Pacific.
Albanese was scathing in his assessment of the former Australian government’s Pacific plan, saying that it had “dropped the ball” in the region — blaming foreign aid cuts and “a nonengagement on values.”
“For our Pacific island neighbors, the issue of climate change is an absolute national security issue,” he said.
In addition to increased action on the environment, Albanese touted a boost in aid and a plan to set up a defense training school in the Pacific.
During Australia’s election campaign, Albanese’s centre-left Labor Party said the school would involve forces from Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Tonga, East Timor, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands.
Albanese said Australia’s renewed diplomatic push in the Pacific, which began with a visit to Fiji by Australian Minister of Foreign Affairs Penny Wong (黃英賢) had been well-received.
“The response has been very positive,” he said.
Australia and China have been locked in a tense duel for influence in the Pacific, after Beijing last month surprised Canberra by securing a wide-ranging security pact with the Solomon Islands.
Wang is expected to remain in Fiji’s capital until at least tomorrow, meeting with the country’s leaders and hosting the second China-Pacific Island Countries Foreign Ministers’ meeting.
Wang met yesterday with Pacific Islands Forum Secretary-General Henry Puna, who said economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and “urgent and ambitious climate change action” were key issues for their discussion.
“We welcome China’s climate change commitments,” Puna said.
Wang is expected to visit Tonga, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea to round out his tour.
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