SYDNEY – Australia has been able to stop an “incursion” by Beijing into the Pacific islands by talking with leaders there weekly and offering vaccine aid, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Sunday.
Concern over China’s military ambitions for the region, after it provided police and riot equipment to the Solomon Islands, prompted U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to last month announce Washington would open a Solomon Islands embassy.
Morrison said China had been “very clear” about aspirations to build a military base in the Pacific islands, but this had not occurred.
This was because Australia worked closely with the region, including providing COVID-19 vaccines before others could offer support, he said in a TV interview with Nine’s Weekend Today.
“I talk to Pacific leaders every single week and that is what ensures that we can block the incursion into our region, because we share values with the Pacific,” he said.
Australia is historically the largest aid donor to the Pacific islands, although China has increased infrastructure lending and aid, and provided military equipment to regional hub Fiji.
Beijing has previously said Australia and the United States are “resurrecting a Cold War mentality”, while China’s assistance would “build a community with a shared future for China and Pacific island countries.”
Tensions between Australia and China, who are significant trading partners, have risen as Beijing sanctioned Australian products in reprisal for Canberra calling for an investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Morrison, who faces an election in May, has put his government’s tough rhetoric on China at the forefront of his campaign for re-election.
(Reporting by Kirsty Needham; editing by Richard Pullin)