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Scott Morrison's South Pacific visit last week, aimed at "stepping up" relations with Fiji and Vanuatu and countering China's growing influence in Australia's neighbourhood, has been described by foreign affairs experts as largely a success.
However, climate change will remain a thorn in relations between the Coalition government and Australia's small island neighbours, after Fiji's Prime Minister criticised Canberra for not doing more to lower carbon emissions and wean the economy off coal.
Morrison's three-day trip concluded as the government announced senior diplomat Ewen McDonald had been appointed as the Head of the Office of the Pacific, a new posting intended to bolster Australia's engagement with the region. His visit was significant given Australian prime ministers have tended in the past only to visit the Pacific for regional forums.
"The establishment of the Office and McDonald's appointment reflect the Australian government's commitment to take our engagement with the Pacific to a new level," Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne said.
Lowy Institute director of the Pacific Islands Programme Jonathan Pryke said the trip appeared to be a "big success" in mending previously strained relations with Frank Bainimarama, the former commander of the Fijian Military Forces who grasped power in a coup in 2006.
"The Prime Minister's presence in Fiji and Vanuatu is very valuable and the trick over the next few years will be to build on the bilateral relationships," Pryke said.
"There is no secret that a big catalyst in Canberra for this stepped-up engagement has been growing awareness about China's engagement in the Pacific over the last 12 to 18 months.
"There was a realisation that we'd been complacent and been caught flat-footed."
A media report last year said that Vanuatu was in secret preliminary discussions with Beijing to set up a military naval base in Vanuatu.
In the presence of Morrison, Fiji's Bainimarama urged Australia to move to clean power sources.
"From where we are sitting, we cannot imagine how the interests of any single industry can be placed above the welfare of Pacific peoples and vulnerable people in the world over," he said in a speech on Thursday night.
Morrison told Pacific Island leaders Australia would meet its international commitment to cut carbon emissions by 26-28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030, in line with the Paris climate change agreement
"We have a comprehensive approach when it comes to climate change," he said on Friday in Fiji.
"We have sensible, achievable, targets that will continue to ensure Australia has a prosperous economy ... while at the same time respecting the needs to address the real impacts of climate change both here in the Pacific, at home and elsewhere."
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said it was a "bit embarrassing that he had to go to Fiji to be told that he's doing nothing on climate change, when in fact millions of Australians could have told him that in Australia.
"We have no climate change policy. I mean, the Fijians have got YouTube and the internet, and they've just looked up the pictures of Morrison brandishing coal like some lucky charm in Parliament in Question Time, turning it into show-and-tell time for primary school students," Shorten said.
Australia made several funding announcements, including for Pacific infrastructure, security, education, cultural relations and sport.
The Australian and Fijian leaders announced a "vuvale" agreement – named after the Fijian word for family – covering economic, security, cultural and sporting support.
It will enable Fijian workers to access Australia's Pacific Labour Scheme, which brings workers into rural areas for up to three years.
Australia had already announced a $2 billion Pacific infrastructure loan fund.
Senator Fierravanti-Wells, a former international development minister under Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, this week asked why Australia would saddle Pacific nations with more debt when they owed $5.5 billion to banks and China.
Morrison's visit to Vanuatu was the first by an Australian prime minister since Bob Hawke in 1990.
Australia's top spy and South Pacific expert Nick Warner accompanied Morrison to Vanuatu, in a further sign that Australia is pushing back against China's rising influence in the South Pacific.
SOURCE: FINANCIAL REBIEW/PACNEWS
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