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First face to face between Albanese and Sogavare

“Our support for this region comes with no strings attached. This comes because we understand that we have a responsibility, as the region’s advanced economy, to provide support to our Pacific neighbours.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese warmly embraced Manasseh Sogavare, the leader of the Solomon Islands who embraced China, as Australia works behind the scenes to prevent Pacific nations from becoming vulnerable to being taken by Beijing wielding its power economic.

As they met for the first time, Mr. Albanese pledged to improve relations with Mr. Sogavare and echoed comments by US Vice President Kamala Harris at the Pacific Islands Forum on Wednesday, saying the ‘Australia and the United States had neglected the Pacific, allowing China to steal a march in the region.

In Fiji for the leaders’ forum, Mr Albanese pledged that Australian aid would be provided without strings attached and that the sovereignty of nations would be respected as he sought to rekindle ties with the region.

In a round of bilateral talks on Wednesday afternoon, Mr Albanese had his first face-to-face meeting with Mr Sogavare, referring “respectfully” to Australia’s concerns over the security deal with China signed in April with the leader of the Solomon Islands.

“Our view on these issues, we have made that very clear,” Mr. Albanese said. “We would be concerned about any permanent (military) presence there in the Solomons, so close, of course, to Australia, and we don’t think that’s in the interest of the region.

“It’s historically an important relationship and it will get better after
this afternoon.”

Mr Sogavare, flanked by guards, smiled as he declined to answer reporters’ questions about the controversial pact as he was led by an Australian official to his meeting with Mr Albanese. But he greeted Mr. Albanese with a smile and open arms for the camera.

“I need a hug,” Mr Sogavare said as they joked about their “bula wear” shirts.

“We were friends even before gaining independence. We are a family. There are many problems that make the family strong.

COVID-19, climate change and China dominated forum discussions.

While Australia’s higher emissions reduction target of 43% by 2030 under the Albanian government has been welcomed, the country still faces pressures on coal mining, including the prospect the opening of new mines.

Australia is trying to tone down those criticisms by emphasizing the government’s other target that 82% of electricity generated by 2030 will come from renewable sources.

Mr Albanese said in his talks with Pacific leaders climate change was the number one issue, although Foreign Secretary Penny Wong did not commit Australia to joining the Green Fund UN Climate Fund, which funds projects in developing countries.

“We weren’t paying enough attention”

In a surprise virtual appearance at the summit, Ms Harris described America’s own version of a Pacific advance to counter Chinese influence.

“We recognize that in recent years the Pacific Islands may not have received the diplomatic attention and support that you deserve. So today I am here to say to you directly: we are going to change that,” said Ms. Harris.

“At a time when we see bad actors seeking to undermine the rules-based order, we must stand united.”

Asked to respond to Ms Harris’ observation, Mr Albanese acknowledged that Australia’s lack of leadership in the Pacific had been problematic.

“It’s a criticism that I believe you may have heard myself and the Foreign Secretary (Penny Wong) make,” he said.

“We made it clear that we had a breakthrough in the Pacific. I described what happened earlier this year (the China-Solomon Islands deal) as a Pacific thing. careful enough, and I know the Biden administration has said that too.

Albanese hailed the United States’ promise of increased engagement, which includes opening embassies in Kiribati and Tonga, creating the post of US envoy to the Pacific Islands Forum, tripling funding $600 million over 10 years for fisheries management, including the fight against illegal foreign fishing, and the return of Peace Corps volunteers to the Pacific.

“The presence of the United States in the region is very important,” he said.

With the forum’s unity fragile after Kiribati’s withdrawal on the eve of the event and the absence of the Marshall Islands due to dissatisfaction with the treatment of Micronesian nations, Australian delegates are trying behind the scenes to strengthen the body.

They believe a strong forum is best placed to deal with China collectively as part of a digital security approach, rather than individually. One concern is that countries could be locked in because they are heavily indebted to China or too dependent on trade.

Australia faces challenges in the Pacific

Besides Mr. Sogavare, Mr. Albanese on Wednesday met with Samoan Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, President of the Federated States of Micronesia David Panuelo and Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama.

He and Mr Bainimarama inspected plans for a maritime center costing Australian taxpayers $83 million that will become a training base and headquarters for the Fijian Navy as well as sea rescue vessels and ships of investigation.

“We have real challenges in this region,” Mr. Albanese said.

“Our support for this region comes with no strings attached. This comes because we understand that we have a responsibility, as the region’s advanced economy, to provide support to our Pacific neighbours.

Source: Australian Financial Review (AFR)


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