SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison will visit the Solomon Islands next week, he said on Monday, as Western nations seek to rein in China’s influence on the tiny Pacific island and across the region.
The visit comes as the United States and its allies are trying to ensure that Pacific countries that have diplomatic links with Taiwan, do not severe those in favor of establishing them with Beijing.
The Solomon Islands is one of only a handful of Pacific countries to recognize Taiwan, a policy now in question after recent elections on the islands. China views Taiwan as a renegade province with no right to state-to-state ties.
Morrison’s first overseas trip since winning re-election this month will also be the first time an Australian prime minister has visited the Solomon Islands since 2008.
“The Pacific is front and center of Australia’s strategic outlook,” Morrison said in an emailed statement.
He did not mention efforts to preserve Taiwan’s diplomatic alliances, but analysts say the issue has become a flashpoint in the region and is likely to be raised.
“China is the Solomon Islands’ largest trading partner and this is adding a lot of pressure on lawmakers to switch allegiances,” said Jonathan Pryke, Pacific Islands program director at the think-tank, the Lowy Institute.
On Friday, a senior U.S. official said Washington would help Pacific countries in the face of China’s efforts to expand its influence.
Those remarks threaten to inflame tension between the United States and China already heated by a trade war, U.S. sanctions and China’s increasingly muscular military posture in the South China Sea.
Australia and China have been increasingly vying for influence in sparsely populated Pacific island countries that control vast swathes of resource-rich oceans.
On Monday, Vanuatu Prime Minister Charlot Salwai meet Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in Beijing, with Li promising that China would encourage investment and deepen trade and infrastructure cooperation, according to China’s foreign ministry.
Last year, Vanuatu and China denied reports that Beijing wanted to establish a permanent military presence in the Pacific island nation.
Keen to undercut China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Australia has directed ever larger amounts of its foreign aid to the region.
In 2018, Australia said it would spend $139 million to develop undersea internet cable links to Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, amid national security concerns about China’s Huawei Technologies Co Ltd.
That year, Australia became the first country to ban the Chinese company, world’s largest maker of telecom network gear, from its nascent broadband network, a step the United States followed this year by effectively banning U.S. firms from doing business with Huawei.
In November, Australia offered Pacific countries up to A$3 billion in grants and cheap loans in build infrastructure, as Morrison declared the region was “our patch”.
Australia has won favor through its spending commitments but its support of its coal industry is a sore point for many in a region particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels caused by greenhouse-gas induced global warming.
“There is little doubt that many Pacific islands will have been unhappy with the re-election of Morrison,” said Peter Chen, a political science professor at the University of Sydney.
“He will need to find common ground to repair that relationship.”
Reporting by Colin Packham; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Robert Birsel