Australia commits to Pacific islands defence training as China seeks rival meeting

SYDNEY (REUTERS) – Australia will set up a defence school to train Pacific island militaries, Canberra’s new Pacific minister said, amid mounting competition for security ties in the region and as China lays plans for a rival meeting to next month’s Pacific Islands Forum.

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 (June 28).

“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 recognise 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.

The political leadership dialogue planned by the Communist Party’s international department 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.

China’s foreign ministry didn’t immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment, but on Monday denied its foreign minister would host a meeting. 

A similar event last year was hosted by the minister for the Communist Party’s international department.

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 (S$208 million) lost each year to illegal fishing, he said.

Australia worked with Pacific island nations on a break-through 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.