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International relations

Australian leader embarks on Pacific trip to regain 'backyard'

Morrison pledges high-quality infrastructure as neighbors deepen ties with China

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, left, meets with Vanuatu Prime Minister Charlot Salwai Tabimasmas on Jan. 16 in Port Vila, Vanuatu. (Photo by AAP)
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, left, meets with Vanuatu Prime Minister Charlot Salwai Tabimasmas on Jan. 16 in Port Vila, Vanuatu. (Photo by AAP)

SYDNEY -- Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison is visiting the Pacific island nations of Vanuatu and Fiji in a region he called Australia's "backyard," weeks after China strengthened its footprint there by cancelling debt and offering fresh financing to Vanuatu.

"As my first international engagements of the year, these visits reflect the depth of Australia's commitment to our Pacific neighbors," he said in a statement before departing.

After arriving in Vanuatu on Wednesday, Morrison met with Prime Minister Charlot Salwai Tabimasmas and pledged to deliver high-quality infrastructure and invest in economic development. The commitments will build upon the support Australia is already providing.

With a population of less than 300,000, Vanuatu is routinely passed over for state visits by Australian leaders. Bob Hawke was the last sitting prime minister to travel to the former French-British colony in 1990. What put the nation on Canberra's radar were reports that China approached Vanuatu about building a military base there.

Vanuatu and China signed a memorandum of understanding in November concerning projects under Beijing's Belt and Road infrastructure initiative, according to news outlets in Australia and Vanuatu. Not only has China agreed to forgive nearly 4 million Australian dollars ($2.87 million) in debt, but it will provide AU$70 million in fresh financing to upgrade roads, according to the reports.

Before leaving for Vanuatu, Morrison described the trip as "a refocus of our international efforts on our own region, in our own backyard, and making sure we can have the biggest possible difference." He is to move on to Fiji on Thursday.

China has made similar overtures to other Pacific nations in Australia's orbit. Tonga signed on to the Belt and Road initiative in November, and in return got a five-year reprieve on paying back crippling debt, according to Reuters and other sources. China also extended substantial funds to Papua New Guinea that helped the country host last year's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference. The money went to a convention center where meetings were held, as well as roads.

Beijing has provided more than $1.1 billion in aid to Pacific nations since 2011, according to data from the Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank. To confront the Chinese influence campaign, Morrison announced a AU$2 billion infrastructure aid fund in November. This is on top of existing aid for disaster recovery, health care and education.

Many aid recipient nations still have to wrestle with repaying debt. The liabilities shouldered by Tonga and Samoa amount to more than 40% of their gross domestic products. There is also the real prospect of the debt trap, in which debtor nations find themselves compelled to hand over ports and other infrastructure to creditor nations, as Sri Lanka has done with China.

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