MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Monday he will visit Fiji and Vanuatu this week as part of a push to offset China’s growing influence in the South Pacific.
Morrison heads to Vanuatu on Wednesday, in the first visit by an Australian prime minister to the Pacific island nation in three decades. He then will go to Fiji, returning on Friday, a spokesman said.
“This is part of our Pacific step-up. It is part of a refocus of our international efforts on our own region, in our own backyard, and making sure we can have the biggest possible difference,” Morrison said on Australian Broadcasting Corp TV.
The trip follows Chinese President Xi Jinping’s meeting in November with eight Pacific Island leaders before the APEC summit in Papua New Guinea.
China’s efforts to woo Pacific island nations have been watched warily by the countries that have traditionally wielded power in the region, Australia, New Zealand and the United States.
Australia announced in November it would offer Pacific countries up to $2 billion in grants and cheap loans for telecommunications, energy, transport and water projects, looking to counter China’s influence.
At the same time, Australia said it would beef up defense and security ties with Pacific islands through new joint exercises and training.
Canberra promised to bolster Vanuatu’s cyber security capability in June as it agreed to begin negotiating a security treaty.
China has spent $1.32 billion on concessional loans and gifts since 2011 to become the second-largest donor after Australia in the Pacific region, raising concern in the West that several tiny nations could end up in debt to Beijing.
Morrison is moving into campaign mode ahead of an election expected in May, following the release of what is expected to be a surplus budget in April.
One issue on the agenda in Fiji is the Australian government’s decision to revoke the citizenship of a man accused of being an Islamic State recruiter, believing he was a dual citizen with Fiji as his father was Fijian.
Fiji has since said that Neil Prakash, now jailed in Turkey, does not have Fijian citizenship, meaning Australia has effectively left him stateless.
“We have been dealing with that issue between the governments over the last few weeks, including directly from leader to leader,” Morrison said on Monday.
Reporting by Sonali Paul and Alison Bevege; editing by Grant McCool