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

As they met face-to-face for the first time, Mr Albanese vowed to improve relations with Mr Sogavare and echoed comments by US Vice President Kamala Harris to the Pacific Island Forum on Wednesday, saying Australia and the US 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 delivered with no strings attached and nations’ sovereignty would be respected as he looked to revive ties with the region.

In a series of bilateral talks on Wednesday afternoon, Mr Albanese had his first face-to-face meeting with Mr Sogavare, raising Australia’s concerns “respectfully” over the security agreement with China signed in April with the Solomons Island leader.

“Our view about those issues, we’ve made very clear,” Mr Albanese said. “We’d be concerned about any permanent (military) presence there in the Solomons, so close, of course, to Australia, and we don’t think that is in the interests of the region.

“It is historically an important relationship and will be better after
this afternoon.”

Mr Sogavare, flanked by minders, grinned as he refused to answer journalists’ questions about the controversial pact as he was ushered by an Australian official to his meeting with Mr Albanese. But he greeted Mr Albanese with a grin and open arms for the camera.

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

“We have been friends even before we gained independence. We’re family. There are many issues that make family strong.”

COVID-19, climate change and China have dominated the forum talks.

While Australia’s higher emissions reduction target of 43 per cent by 2030 under the Albanese government has been welcomed, the country is still facing pressure over coal mining, including the prospect of more mines being opened.

Australia is attempting to blunt that criticism by emphasising the government’s other target – that 82 per cent of electricity generated by 2030 will come from renewable sources.

Mr Albanese said that in his discussions with Pacific leaders, climate change was the number one issue that came up, although Foreign Minister Penny Wong was noncommittal about Australia rejoining the UN’s Green Climate Fund, which finances projects in developing countries.

‘We had not paid enough attention’

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

“We recognise 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 tell you directly: We are going to change that,” Ms Harris said.

“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 a lack of Australian leadership in the Pacific had been problematic.

“It is a critique I believe that you might have heard myself and the foreign minister (Penny Wong) make,” he said.

“We quite clearly said that we had a Pacific step up. I described what occurred earlier this year (the China-Solomon Islands deal) as a Pacific stuff-up. We had not paid enough attention, and I know that the Biden administration has said that as well.”

Mr Albanese welcomed the US’s promise of increased engagement, which includes opening embassies in Kiribati and Tonga, creating the position of US envoy to the Pacific Islands Forum, tripling funding to $US600 million over 10 years for fisheries management, including combating illegal foreign fishing, and returning Peace Corps volunteers to the Pacific.

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

With the unity of the forum fragile after Kiribati withdrew on the eve of the event and Marshall Islands not attending because of unhappiness over the treatment of Micronesian nations, Australian delegates behind the scenes are trying to reinforce the body.

They believe a strong forum is best-placed to deal collectively with China as part of a safety in numbers approach, instead of individually. A concern is that countries might be boxed in because they are heavily indebted to China or overly reliant on trade.

Australia faces challenges in Pacific

As well as Mr Sogavare, Mr Albanese on Wednesday met Samoan Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mata'afa, Federated States of Micronesia President David Panuelo and Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama.

He and Mr Bainimarama inspected plans for a maritime centre costing Australian taxpayers $83 million that will become a training base and headquarters for the Fijian navy as well as host sea rescue vessels and survey ships.

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

“Our support for this region does not come with strings attached. It comes because we understand that we have a responsibility as an advanced economy in the region to provide support to our Pacific neighbours.”

Source: Australian Financial Review (AFR)