Australia continues to step up its engagement with the Pacific amid concerns the Solomon Islands government is moving to further align itself with China.
Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare threatened to ban entry to foreign journalists critical of China following an ABC report.
Sogavare’s office attacked the ABC report of China’s actions in Solomon Islands as “racial profiling”.
It was also revealed last week the prime minister’s office twice distributed funds from the Chinese government to 39 out of 50 members of parliament.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said he had moved to transform the way Australia is perceived in the region, but it would take some time to achieve change.
“What we have done is change the way that we’re perceived,” Albanese told the National Press Club on Monday.
“We attended the Pacific Islands Forum. We attended in a way that engaged and treated people with respect and we have shown leadership.”
The prime minister also criticised the former government for not engaging enough with the Pacific after the Solomon Islands signed a security pact with China.
“If we sit in Canberra while the advice was given to the former government about what was happening in the Solomon Islands and don’t respond for months … that’s not a great way to achieve a positive outcome,” Albanese said.
“We’ll continue to engage. I continue to have discussions – some of which are public, some of which are private – with leaders in our region.”
Albanese flagged meetings in coming weeks with East Timor president Jose Ramos-Horta and Sogavare.
He will also be attending the Prime Minister’s XIII rugby league matches against Papua New Guinea in Brisbane on 25 September with his counterpart prime minister James Marape.
Albanese added that while Australia would continue to pursue its interests in the Pacific, it would also respect the sovereignty of each island nation.
“We need to engage in a way that’s respectful of people’s national sovereignty,” he said.
“But in a way that clearly makes it clear what Australia’s national interest is.”
The prime minister also defended Australia’s national security record in the Torres Strait following revelations some community leaders want to turn to China for investment after expressing anger at the government.
“From time to time there will be voices, communities aren’t homogenous,” Albanese said.
“I’m not worried about Australia’s national interests when it comes to Torres Strait. One of the things about the Torres Strait as well, they’ve a great history of playing a role in our defence of our nation.”
Foreign Minister Penny Wong was in PNG on Monday where she met with her counterpart Justin Tkatchenko.
“You are profoundly important to us. We share history, we share values, we share affinity and we share the region,” she said in a joint press conference following the meeting.
“Our futures are tied together.”
Tkatchenko maintained Australia is PNG’s primary security partner in the region after discussing regional and domestic security issues, labour mobility schemes between the two nations and trade ties with the foreign minister.
“Our traditional partners have always been Australia when it comes to trade, economics, security,” he said.
“We will continue to … develop that through treaties, for partnership to make sure we have a safe region.”
Senator Wong will land in Timor Leste on Wednesday.