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Prime Minister Scott Morrison is vowing to put the Pacific islands at the centre of Australia’s strategic outlook, amid concerns its influence in the region is waning as China increases its diplomatic and economic presence.
The pivot toward the region will see the Australian Defence Force create a Pacific Mobile Training Team to undertake more engagement with other forces in the region, and conduct increased naval deployments for maritime training and exercises.
“This is our patch,” Morrison is expected to say in a speech in the northern state of Queensland on Thursday. “It’s where Australia can make the biggest difference in world affairs.”
Australia, a key ally of the U.S., has hit rocky diplomatic ground in the past year with China, its main trading partner. Tensions were raised when the government voiced concerns about Beijing-backed companies funding infrastructure in Pacific nations, amid fears that could lead to Chinese military bases in the region.
While the Pacific has traditionally been seen as Australia’s diplomatic turf and is the biggest recipient of foreign aid from Canberra, China has been increasing loans to small, indebted Pacific island nations.
The measures in Morrison’s speech follow his Nov. 1 announcement that Australia is formally committing to a joint initiative with Papua New Guinea to develop a naval base, edging out a bid by China.
That followed a June announcement that Australia will help fund a new telecommunications cable stretching from Sydney to the Solomon Islands, squeezing out Huawei Technologies Co. -- a company that in August was banned from supplying next-generation wireless equipment to Australia’s telecom operators on national security grounds.
Other new measures to be announced by Morrison on Thursday include --
* Holding annual meetings of defense and police and border security chief
*Opening a Pacific faculty at the Australian Institute of Police Management
*Creating a A$2 billion (US$1.46 billion) Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific
*Opening diplomatic missions in Palau, the Marshall Islands, French Polynesia, Niue and the Cook Islands
Still, the change of emphasis into the Pacific for Australia may not be sustained. Since replacing Malcolm Turnbull as leader in August, Morrison’s failed to gain momentum for his Liberal-National government in the polls, which show he’s on track to lose power to the Labor opposition in elections expected by May.
Morrison is set for meetings with world leaders next week at the East Asia Summit in Singapore and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation in Papua New Guinea. He said in a Nov. 1 speech at a Bloomberg event in Sydney that “China is the country that is most changing the balance of power” and “exercising unprecedented influence in the Indo-Pacific.”.
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