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Pacific leaders off Canberra’s ‘official’ invitations list
5:09 pm GMT+12, 12/04/2018, Australia

Australia has been accused of isolating Pacific neighbours, inviting just two of the region’s leaders to visit as official “guests of government” since the Coalition was elected in 2013.
 
As China lavishes Pacific leaders with infrastructure projects and state receptions, The Australian can disclose Australia has failed to roll out the red carpet to key regional allies, including Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O’Neill and Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama.
 
The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet confirmed Malcolm Turnbull hosted Nauru President Baron Waqa on an official visit last April, and Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare the following August.
 
There were no official “guest of government” visits by Pacific island leaders under prime minister Tony Abbott.
 
Over the same period, Australia hosted six official visits by New Zealand leaders — three by former prime minister John Key, two by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, and one by New Zealand Governor- General Jerry Mateparae.
 
Many Pacific island leaders, including O’Neill and Bainimarama, have travelled to Australia during that time, but not with the pomp and ceremony of an official visit.
 
Fiji’s leader made official visits to China in 2013, 2015 and 2017, meeting President Xi Jinping each time.
 
 O’Neill travelled to China in 2016 for talks to mark the 40th year of diplomatic relations between the two nations.
 
Labor foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong said the government was failing to properly engage in its own strategic backyard. “It’s pretty clear the Turnbull and Abbott government have dropped the ball in the Pacific and shown little interest in building relations with Pacific leaders, at great cost to our national interest,” she said.
 
“It’s in Australia’s interests to show leadership in the region and build close ties with Pacific leaders. Yet under both Turnbull and Abbott we have taken them for granted, undermining our standing in the region.”
 
The government’s management of its bilateral relationships in the Pacific — where the United States relies on Australia to lead the way — came into question his week with reports China has approached Vanuatu about building a permanent military base on the island nation.
 
Turnbull said the prospect of a Chinese military base in the Pacific would be of “great concern” to Australia, following a Fairfax report of “preliminary discussions” between China and Vanuatu on the issue.
 
O’Neill has visited Australia six times since the Coalition was elected, but not as an official “guest of government”. Vanuatu’s Prime Minister Charlot Salwai visited Australia once, for the opening of the Commonwealth Games.
 
Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop said China was working hard to be a regional power.

SOURCE: THE AUSTRALIAN/PACNEWS


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