Scott Morrison will pledge $250 million in infrastructure funding to the Solomon Islands in an attempt to counter China’s growing influence in the Pacific region.
The Prime Minister’s effort to strengthen Australia’s commitment to the Pacific comes a day after the US Defence Secretary accused China of threatening Asia’s stability and asserted that the Indo-Pacific region was a “priority theatre”.
The bilateral infrastructure program, which Mr Morrison will unveil on Monday, will finance a range of key economic projects over a decade and will coincide with the establishment of a $2 billion infrastructure bank for the Pacific.
The Solomon Islands is among six Pacific island nations that officially recognise Taiwan. It is under growing pressure from Beijing to switch diplomatic allegiance as China builds influence in the region.
Mr Morrison is trying to dissuade our Pacific neighbours from opening diplomatic channels with China by convincing Honiara not to sever ties with Taiwan.
He arrived in the Solomon Islands on Sunday, becoming the first Australian prime minister to visit the nation in a decade.
On his arrival Mr Morrison said the Solomon Islands was “one of the closest members of our Pacific family”.
“In the Pacific, stepping up is all about showing up,” Mr Morrison said.
“That’s why I am pleased that my first official visit after the election is to our own neighbourhood, where we can always make the most difference.”
— Pablo Viñales (@pablovinales) June 2, 2019
It is understood the program will allow the Solomons government to quickly finance smaller, urgently-required infrastructure that it would be unwilling to borrow in order to fund.
Australia will also support the building of a new complex to hold the prime minister’s office and the foreign affairs and trade ministries in Honiara.
As well, $2.7 million will be provided over three years to help islanders considering work opportunities in Australia cover their up-front costs such as passports.
A sports funding package will boost the participation of women and girls in rugby and support elite-level athletes prepare for international events.
China’s growing role in the Pacific through funding infrastructure and boosting defence links was a hot topic in Singapore, with Beijing choosing to send its highest-profile defence delegation ever to participate in the forum, led by Defence Minister Wei Fenghe.
Having been greeted at the Honiara airport by Solomons Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare on Sunday, Mr Morrison and wife Jenny attended a barbecue at the Australian high commissioner’s residence.
Climate change is expected to feature in talks with Solomons officials.
Mr Morrison’s trip will also acknowledge the long co-operation between the nations during the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI), which formally ended in 2017.
On his arrival Mr Morrison said the Solomon Islands is “one of the closest members of our Pacific family”.
“After serious civil unrest, Australia and other regional friends helped re-establish law and order through the RAMSI operation that has seen their country restore their democracy and get their debt under control.”
Meanwhile, Defence Minister Linda Reynolds told the Shangri-La Dialogue the Indo-Pacific region was becoming more prosperous “but it is also becoming more complex and contested”.
She said competition between nations in the region was not something to be feared but required everyone to play by internationally-established rules and find “common principles that unite us”.
“We are in the midst of an effort to take our relationship with Pacific neighbours to a new level,” she said.
“Australia wants to do our bit to ensure the Pacific region is resilient and it is stable.
“Our efforts now go well beyond what Australia has done in the past. We have a package of initiatives that are far-reaching in scope and also in ambition – security, economic, diplomatic, development and people-to-people initiatives that build on long and historic relationships and friendships.”