SYDNEY -- Pacific islands have grown increasingly critical of longtime ally Australia for stepping up exports of coal despite the existential threat those nations face from rising sea levels caused by global warming.
The island leaders lambasted Australia at the 50th Pacific Islands Forum held in Tuvalu this month for not endorsing their proposed declaration designed to fight global warming. They accused Canberra of putting its own economic interests above those of the region.
As their disappointment with Australia grows, China's standing in the region is receiving a boost. Infrastructure projects through Beijing's massive Belt and Road Initiative are being welcomed with open arms in the region. At the same time, Australia's relations with China remain shaky following Canberra's exclusion of Huawei Technologies equipment from its 5G network last year.
According to Australian media, smaller Pacific Island leaders wanted a full endorsement for their Tuvalu Declaration, but they could not reach an agreement. Instead, PIF appended the Kainaki II Declaration for Urgent Climate Action Now to the communique, which included different terms.
Tuvalu's prime minister, Enele Sopoaga, later revealed a harsh exchange he had with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison at the forum. "I said, 'You are concerned about saving your economy in Australia. I am concerned about saving my people in Tuvalu.'"
Sopoaga's remarks summed up strong frustration among Pacific islanders that Australia does not plan to curb exports of coal, a leading source of carbon dioxide emissions when burned as a fossil fuel.
Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama did not mince his words in his criticism either, calling Morrison "very insulting, very condescending, not good for the relationship," according to The Guardian.
The harsh criticism appeared to push Australia to go on the defensive this week. Foreign Minister Marise Payne told local media that Canberra's relations with Pacific nations are "deep and they are strong," apparently aiming to reduce the tension.
On the other hand, Bainimarama praised China at the forum, saying the "Chinese don't insult us... They're good people, definitely better than Morrison, I can tell you that."
His remarks underscored the waning sway of Australia and the growing influence of China in the Pacific.
"Whether it is China or India or Australia, the cheapest help we can get, the best help in terms of the terms of loan," said James Marape, the prime minister of Papua New Guinea, according to The Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
This month, The Australian newspaper reported that Marape met with the Chinese ambassador and asked Beijing to help refinance about $8 billion in government debt.