16 Jan 2019

Australian PM heads out to Pacific "backyard"

9:15 am on 16 January 2019

A visit by Australia's prime minister to Vanuatu and Fiji this week is the first by an Australian prime minister in more than a decade.

Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison on November 29, 2018.

Photo: AFP

The trip follows the Australian government's Pacific "Step Up" announced just over a year ago and is part of efforts to show Australia is taking the Pacific seriously.

Mr Morrison is scheduled to arrive in the Vanuatu capital Port Vila today in what's also being seen as a push to stem China's growing influence in the region.

The prime minister told the ABC the visit was part of "our refocusing of our international efforts on our own region, in our own backyard and making sure we can make the biggest possible difference."

"This is really about demonstrating, following through on the announcements I made last year, about stepping up our security partnerships, stepping up our economic and cultural partnerships," he said.

At the end of 2018 Australia announced several projects for the Pacific including a $US1.4 billion infrastructure fund, partnership to provide electricity for 70 percent of Papua New Guinea's population, $US6.5 m for cybercrime prevention and new diplomatic posts.

But Mr Morrison was playing "catch-up" after missing the Pacific Islands Forum meeting of the region's leaders in Nauru last year, according to Jenny Hayward-Jones of Australia's Lowy Institute.

"It's part of a realisation by the Australian government that you can't just keep throwing aid money at the region, that it's time to build personal relationships and for the prime minister himself to do that," she said.

Ms Hayward-Jones said the visits would deliver a message that Australia is the partner of choice for the Pacific, especially in the area of security.

However, with Australia's domestic policies at odds with the Pacific in the area of climate change, she expected the prime minister would avoid discussing climate change issues.

An Australian prime minister last visited Vanuatu in 1990 when Bob Hawke attended a meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum.

Vanuatu journalist Dan McGarry said Mr Morrison's trip is historic and necessary given the very personal nature of Pacific politics.

"This is the first time that we've had an Australian prime minister coming exclusively for a bilateral visit with the head of government here in Vanuatu. As a sign of respect I think it's a really important stride."

Mr Morrison will be opening the refurbished Vanuatu Police College during his time in the country's capital.

"There is a strong emphasis on building up Vanuatu's national security infrastructure. Australia has announced some significant assistance in that regard helping us to recruit as many as 300 new police in the very short term," Dan McGarry said.

A visit to the new Blackrock peacekeeping training hub in Nadi is on Mr Morrison's itinerary in Fiji, which last hosted an Australian prime minister back in 2006.

Last year it was revealed that Australia had successfully outbid China from funding the regional base and Mr Morrison said the work there was very important.

Australia's Bushmaster armoured vehicles arrive at Nadi, Fiji in May 2017

Australia's Bushmaster armoured vehicles arrive at Nadi, Fiji in May 2017 Photo: Facebook/RFMF Media

The Pacer Plus regional trade deal was also important for the prime minister to address while in Fiji, according to Richard Herr of the University of Fiji.

Fiji, along with Papua New Guinea, is still holding out on signing up to the deal which includes Australia and New Zealand.

It was a critical issue for Canberra given Fiji and PNG were looking to commit to China's own development strategy, the Belt and Road Initiative, Dr Herr said.

"If these two major states in the Pacific were to sign on for the Belt and Road Initiative and still not sign on for Pacer Plus, there would be an economic alienation at a significant level with Australia's relationship with the Pacific."

This week's visit comes after Australia and Fiji came to diplomatic blows over the Islamic State fighter Neil Prakash.

Fijian officials rejected claims the Australian born man was also a Fiji citizen and the incident had irritated "much improved' relations between Suva and Canberra, according to Dr Herr.

While Fiji's prime minister Frank Bainimarama has described the visit by Scott Morrison as an historic step up in the countries' diplomatic relationship, its timing was "highly insensitive", according to a former senior Fiji diplomat Robin Nair.

He described the political situation in Fiji as "very fragile" after the November elections, saying only last month the opposition was forced to abort its court challenge of the poll results.

"This (visit) in fact demonstrates very clearly the question that is raised in the Pacific and particularly in Fiji how well Australia understands its Pacific neighbourhood and most importantly how to deal with the intrinsic and festering issues and problems in the Pacific islands," Mr Nair said.

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