Australia will establish a defence school to train Pacific island militaries, Canberra’s new Pacific minister said, amid intensifying competition for security ties and as Beijing seeks to host a rival meeting to the main regional group, the Pacific Islands Forum, next month.
Australia will double its funding for aerial surveillance of the Pacific islands vast fishing zone, and provide financing for Pacific islands to build more resilient infrastructure as Pacific sea level rises are forecast to be four-times the global average, Minister for International Development and Pacific, Pat Conroy, told a Pacific conference on Tuesday.
“The Australian Government knows that the issue of security is inseparable from the issue of climate change,” he said in a video address to the conference in Fiji’s capital, Suva.
During the Pacific Islands Forum taking place in Suva next month, regional leaders are expected to discuss China’s push to strike a trade and security deal with 10 Pacific island nations that hold diplomatic ties with China.
A leaked draft of the deal showed it covered fisheries and maritime security as well as police training.
The forum includes Australia and New Zealand, which have expressed concern at China’s recent security deal struck with the Solomon Islands, as well as several nations that recognize Taiwan and not Beijing.
China, which is not a PIF member, is seeking to host a video meeting with the 10 nations it wants to sign to a multilateral pact on July 14, to coincide with the final day of the PIF leaders meeting, a source with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters.
It also coincides with the day a communique would be expected to be issued by the forum leaders. It is unknown if the meeting with China will go ahead, after some nations were reported to be upset by the timing.
Tensions between China and the island states that hold diplomatic ties with Taiwan were highlighted when Tuvalu’s foreign minister withdrew from a United Nations oceans conference on Monday after China blocked three Taiwanese members in the Tuvalu delegation from attending.
Conroy said the Pacific Islands Forum had brought the region together for 50 years, and it was “the heart of Pacific regionalism”.
Ahead of the meeting, he outlined the new Australian government’s commitments to support the region, including an Australia Pacific Defence School would provide training for defence and security forces.
The pledge, first made at the election, to double funding for aerial surveillance of the Pacific exclusive economic zones would increase maritime security and recoup US$150 million lost each year to illegal fishing, he said.
Australia worked with Pacific island nations on a breakthrough agreement at the World Trade Organisation this month to restrict fishing subsidies, used by China’s high-seas fishing fleet, that had encouraged unsustainable over-fishing, he said.
“This will be good news for the Pacific Ocean environmentally – and it will be good news for Pacific countries economically,” he said.
The economic hit from the COVID-19 pandemic had seen public debt across the Pacific rise from A$20 billion ($13.85 billion)in 2019 to A$28 billion in 2022, he said.
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