Prime Minister Anthony Albanese says Australia needs to step up engagement with Pacific Islands in response to ‘changed environment’
The Prime Minister took a swipe at the former Morrison government amid a pledge to provide further support and increase its engagement with the Pacific region in response to China’s growing dominance and Beijing’s plan to secure trade deals with ten island nations.
Albanese has pledged to “step up” discussions with leaders of Pacific Island nations and provide further economic support amid China’s visit to the region this week in the hopes of securing further trade deals.
China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi and dozens of members of his delegation touched down in the Solomon Islands overnight ahead of the official signing of Beijing and Honiara’s security partnership on Thursday morning.
In addition, Wang will be seeking a deal with ten Pacific countries to offer policing, security, cyber support and a new China-Pacific free-trade agreement that could see the region influenced further by Beijing.
Albanese was questioned by Sky News Australia about the reports to secure further agreements and whether Australia’s national security was under threat if more deals were inked.
“We need to step up not step back, which is what occurred under the former government,” he said in his first interview since returning from the Quad summit.
“We clearly need to support the sort of programmes we put forward at the election.
“This was the context for us saying (during the election) we wanted an Australia Pacific training facility, that we wanted to take further action in support island nations on maritime security, that we wanted an additional $500m(US$354 million) of aid into the Pacific.
“And that we wanted to work with the island nations of the Pacific on climate change as well as facilitate migration issues, be it temporary or permanent migration, from our Pacific Island neighbours.”
The first move to engage communication and build a relationship under the Albanese Government is through sending newly-elected Foreign Minister Penny Wong to Fiji on Thursday and other surrounding island nations in hopes of countering China’s talks.
She is set to meet Fiji’s Prime Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister Frank Bainimarama Friday and Forum Secretary General Henry Puna before she delivers a speech about Australia’s commitment to re-strengthen the relationship with the Pacific.
Albanese stressed Australia needed to respond to the “changed environment” and pledged his government “will engage more strong with our neighbours”.
He then took a swipe at the former Morrison government for not intervening earlier to prevent the Honiara and Beijing deal.
“It’s important that we take the changing geo strategic environment in our region seriously,” he said.
“That’s why last year I don’t understand how it is that former foreign minister (Marise) Payne take a submission for increased aid, at the end of last year, we knew these things were happening the advice was there from foreign affairs and trade and action wasn’t taken.”
The Prime Minister flagged the concerns about China were brought up at this week’s Quad leaders’ summit with U.S President Joe Biden, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in Tokyo.
“We’ve known that China is seeking to extend its influence into the region. During the election campaign the Solomon Islands deal was front and centre,” Albanese said.
“But we know from China’s perspective that’s just a first of a range of deals they want to exercise.”
He suggested Australia was “paying a heavy price” after the aid budget was cut under the previous government.
A report from the Lowy Institute suggested Australia’s spend on air in the Pacific increased 24 percent between 2009 and 2019.
But it also found the funding to the Solomon Islands had decreased from a peak of US$178 million in 2011 down to US$129 million in 2019.
“Aid is often debated in a way, do you want money for something domestically, or do you want foreign aid?” the Prime Minister said.
“The truth is that international aid is not only the right thing to developing countries, it is in our national interest to engage and provide support to developing nations.”
Albanese promised to provide further support to the region and engage with leader and officials to build a strong relationship.
“The parliamentary exchanges was cut back. Malcolm Turnbull had it in place, but it was cut back in recent times, we need to step up, not cut back,” he added.
He stressed it was important governments respected the sovereignty of the Pacific Island nations.
SOURCE: SKY NEWS/PACNEWS