By Colin Packham
SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison will visit the Solomon Islands next week, two sources familiar with the plans said on Monday, as Western nations seek to rein in China’s influence on the tiny Pacific island. With the United States and its allies keen to ensure China does not increase its foothold in the Pacific, protecting diplomatic recognition for self-ruled Taiwan has emerged as a flashpoint in regional ties.
“China is the Solomon Islands’ largest trading partner and this is adding a lot of pressure on lawmakers to switch allegiances,” said Jonathan Pryke, Pacific Islands programme director at the think-tank, the Lowy Institute.
The Solomon Islands is one of a handful of Pacific countries to recognise Taiwan, a policy now in question after recent elections. China views as Taiwan as a renegade province with no right to state-to-state ties.
On Friday, a senior U.S. official said Washington would help Pacific countries in the face of China’s attempts to influence them.
Those remarks threaten to inflame tension between the U.S. and China already heated by their trade war, U.S. sanctions and China’s increasingly muscular military posture in the South China Sea.
Morrison’s first overseas trip since winning re-election this month will also be the first time an Australian prime minister has visited the Solomon Islands since 2008.
Australia and China have been vying for influence in sparsely populated Pacific island countries that control vast swathes of resource-rich oceans.
Keen to undercut China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Australia has directed ever larger amounts of its foreign aid to the region.
In 2018, Australia said it would spend $139 million to develop undersea internet cable links to Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, amid national security concerns about China’s Huawei Technologies Co Ltd.
That year, Australia became the first country to ban the world’s largest maker of telecom network gear from its nascent broadband network, a step the United States followed this year by effectively banning U.S. firms from doing business with Huawei.
In November, Australia offered Pacific countries up to A$3 billion in grants and cheap loans in build infrastructure, as Morrison declared the region was “our patch”.
Australia has won favour through its spending commitments but its support of its dominant coal industry is a sore point for many in the region. “There is little doubt that many Pacific islands will have been unhappy with the re-election of Morrison,” said Peter Chen, a political science professor at the University of Sydney. “He will need to find common ground to repair that relationship.”
(Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)