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The Solomon Islands Prime Minister has welcomed the New Zealand Government's renewed interest in the Pacific.
But he has shied away from commenting on the reasons behind a recent lift in Pacific aid - China's growing influence in the region.
Prime Minister Rick Houenipwela held bilateral talks with his New Zealand counterpart Jacinda Ardern this afternoon in Auckland - part of his first official visit to this country.
New Zealand committed last month to spending an additional $714 million (US$502 million) in foreign aid over the next four years as part of its “Pacific Reset” strategy.
Houenipwela said the new strategy and funding boost would refocus the two countries' relationship from “donor and recipient” to a partnership.
New Zealand's aid funding is aimed at ensuring it holds ground as China and other countries increase their own presence in the Pacific.
The Solomons could be in line for Chinese investment, as officials have already held talks about the possible development of a tourism hub in Guadalcanal. That is despite the Solomons' diplomatic ties with Taiwan.
At a press conference following the talks, Houenipwela was asked whether his country was now benefitting from a geopolitical battle in the Pacific.
“I am cognisant of the fact that China is making a lot of movements and what have you in the different sectors in the region,” he said.
“But whether development assistance has changed as a result of that is probably for our development partners to respond to.”
Chinese firm Huawei had planned to build a telecommunications cable linking the Solomons to Sydney but the Australian Government took over the project after concerns that China would use it for spying.
Houenipwela confirmed that Australia's concerns about security were the reason that Huawei's plan did not go ahead, but he would not elaborate on what those concerns were.
Ardern said Wednesday that New Zealand would spend another $2 million (US$1.4 million) to help the Solomons create a state-owned enterprise to run Munda Airport. She said it was “not necessarily” an example of New Zealand providing aid to counter other countries' investments.
“We've been there alongside the Solomon Islands on airport infrastructure as a way to build up tourism for some time.”
She said it was important for New Zealand to rethink its role in the Pacific "regardless of what everyone else is doing".
A key part of the bilateral relationship, the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI), wound up last year after 14 years.
In all, 2000 New Zealand Defence Force and police were deployed in the region to help restore stability after the ethnic conflict known as "The Tensions". Nine New Zealand police officers remain in the country.
Elections are scheduled for early next year and Houenipwela said he was confident that stability could be maintained.
“I can assure everybody that the security situation can't be better than right now.”
The two leaders also discussed the Recognised Seasonal Worker (RSE) scheme, with Houenipwela saying his country had not fully taken advantage of it.
He wanted to double the number of Solomon Islands workers coming to New Zealand to 1300, he said.
Earlier, Houenipwela was welcomed at Government House in Epsom with a 19-gun salute, a haka, and a military procession.
SOURCE: NZ HERALD/PACNEWS
Pacific Islands News Association
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International News Safety Institute (INSI)
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