Morrison pledges $250m for Solomon Islands infrastructure in Pacific push
Scott Morrison is pressing ahead with the Government’s ambitious Pacific step up, reshaping Australia’s aid program in Solomon Islands by pledging $250 million for infrastructure during a lightning quick visit to Honiara.
- Australia will provide $3 million in loans to temporary workers from Solomon Islands
- The money for major infrastructure projects will come from the existing aid budget
- Solomon Islands is embroiled in a fierce domestic debate over Taiwan allegiance
The Prime Minister will also announce that Australia will fund a new office complex to house two key Solomon Islands departments — the Prime Minister’s office and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
On top of that, Canberra will provide loans worth almost $3 million to temporary workers from Solomon Islands who want to come to Australia under labour mobility schemes.
The money will come from the existing aid budget and will be redirected from programs that focus on education, health and governance.
Jonathan Pryke from the Lowy Institute said the announcement showed that Australia wanted to “get involved directly in the infrastructure space in a way that is more responsive to recipient needs as well as strategic imperatives”.
“Pacific leaders have made it clear they want more aid spent on infrastructure, and it is indeed a way for Australia to show we’re as good a partner as China,” he said.
But he warned that Australia needed to move carefully.
“There are risks attached to just being reactive to demands of geopolitics and Pacific leaders,” he said.
“We need to make sure our taxpayer dollars are still achieving long term development outcomes, which are as important to Australia’s national interest as curbing China’s interests in the region.”
‘A very clear message’
Prime Minister Scott Morrison is visiting the Solomon Islands on his first post-election overseas trip. (AAP: Darren England)
The swift redesign of parts of the aid program again signals Australia’s determination to reinforce its influence in the Pacific as strategic competition intensifies and China continues to pour resources into the region.
Mr Morrison will today meet the new Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare in Honiara on his first overseas trip since winning the election.
The Prime Minister told a gathering in Honiara last night that his decision to come to the Pacific sent “a very clear message”.
“This is to reaffirm our commitment to the Pacific Step Up program, to our Pacific family,” he said.
The new Solomon Islands infrastructure fund will be spent over 10 years, and is on top of the $2 billion Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific.
It’s designed for smaller infrastructure projects that Solomon Islands might not want to fund by borrowing from the Facility.
Anxiety over Taiwan
Former Solomon Islands leader Rick Hou met with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen last year. (Taiwan’s Office of the President)
A map showing Taiwan’s six allies in the Pacific region. Beijing has been lobbying countries in the region to accept a “One China” policy. (ABC)
Mr Morrison’s visit also comes while Solomon Islands is embroiled in a fierce domestic debate over its allegiance with Taiwan.
Solomon Islands is one of a dwindling band of countries that recognises Taipei instead of Beijing.
Some lawmakers have been pressing Mr Sogavare to abandon Taiwan and establish diplomatic relations with China instead.
But Mr Sogavare’s predecessor as Prime Minister, Rick Hou, has warned against Solomon Islands making the switch.
“It is in the long-term interests of Solomon Islands to maintain the status quo,” said Mr Hou.
“Where China has invested in some of these countries the investment actually is not an investment which is free, you end up with these countries with a whole lot of debt.”
The US has made it clear that it would like Australia to urge Solomon Islands to retain the status quo, but Scott Morrison is expected to tread carefully on the subject when he meets Mr Sogavare.
Chinese military base ‘not welcome’
A Chinese military base in the Pacific “would have an obvious negative impact on Australia’s strategic situation,” DFAT said. (Reuters: Hugh Gentry)
Australian anxiety about China’s strategic ambitions was also on display at the Shangri-La dialogue in Singapore on the weekend.
When asked about the prospect of a Chinese military base in the Pacific, the Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Frances Adamson, echoed warnings made by former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
“Any foreign base in our region would not be welcome,” she said.
“It would have an obvious negative impact on Australia’s strategic situation.”
But Ms Adamson insisted that Australia “does not see [the Pacific] through the narrow lens of strategic competition” and was focussed on dealing with tackling infrastructure and development challenges in the region.
Mr Hou said he thought the Pacific Step Up was driven by both anxiety about China’s rise as well as Canberra’s genuine determination to tackle development changes in the Pacific.
“It’s probably both. The Chinese influence in the region is really huge, and it is growing,” he said.
“Australia does need to be more engaged with its immediate neighbours and Solomon Islands is a really important partner in these engagements.”
Mr Hou also said that Pacific leaders remained dissatisfied with Australia’s policies on climate change, and wanted Australia to be “better engaged” with the environmental challenges it poses.