China, Australia foreign ministers arrive in Pacific to vie for influence

·2 min read

SYDNEY, May 26 (Reuters) - Australia's Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said Canberra needs to "step up, not step back" in supporting the Pacific islands as China's foreign minister arrived in the region seeking a sweeping regional deal on security and trade.

After Reuters reported a leaked draft communique showing China will seek an agreement with 10 Pacific island countries covering policing, security, trade, marine and data communication, Albanese said Australia "need(s) to respond to this".

Albanese said his new Labor government had pledged to take more action to support islands nations on maritime security, climate change, boosting aid and allowing Pacific island citizens to migrate to Australia.

"We need to step up, not step back, which is what occurred under the former government," he told Sky on Thursday.

Australia's Foreign Minister Penny Wong travels to Fiji on Thursday to meet with its prime minister, her first Pacific visit since being sworn in on Monday.

China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi arrived in the Solomon Islands early on Thursday, the first stop on an eight-nation tour, and hosts a meeting of Pacific foreign ministers in Fiji next week, where he will seek agreement on a five-year action plan.

The draft communique circulated by China to Pacific islands has prompted opposition from at least one of the invited nations, which says it showed China's intent to control the region and "threatens regional stability".

The Solomon Islands recently signed a security pact with China despite objections from Australia, the United States, Japan and New Zealand, which fear it could give China a military foothold in the Pacific.

China rejects this, saying the pact is focused on domestic policing and criticism by Western countries was interference in the Solomon Island's sovereign decision-making.

Albanese said Pacific islands made their own decisions.

"They are sovereign nations of course, and we need to respect that, but we need to be offering more support, otherwise we can see the consequences with the deal that was done with the Solomons. We know that China sees that as the first of many," Albanese said.

Wong and Albanese returned from the Quad meeting in Tokyo on Wednesday, where the need to increase climate change support to Pacific islands to counter China's influence was discussed.

Solomon Islands media outlets said they would boycott a press conference scheduled for Thursday afternoon because local media were restricted from questioning Wang. (Reporting by Kirsty Needham; Editing by Lincoln Feast.)

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