Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison in a November 22, 2018 photo. Photo: AFP/Mark Metcalfe

Australia’s efforts to woo Pacific states away from China’s embrace kicked into a higher gear with a rare visit by Prime Minister Scott Morrison to Fiji and Vanuatu. Despite the symbolism of a head of state visit, Morrison’s tour was a sobering reminder of how little control he has over the counter-balancing agenda.

To be sure, there were plenty of sweeteners on the table, including allowances for Fijians to work in Australian rural regions, new teacher training programs and funding to broadcast Australian TV programs in the island nation. But Morrison’s counterpart, Frank Bainimarama, had a different issue in mind: climate change.

“I urged your predecessor [Malcolm Turnbull] repeatedly to honor his commitment to clean energy. From where we are sitting, we cannot imagine how the interests of any single industry can be placed above the welfare of Pacific peoples and vulnerable people in the world over.

“Consensus from the scientific community is clear and the existential threat posed to Pacific island countries is certain,” Bainimarama said. Pacific island nations are on a precarious front-line of the climate change debate as rising sea levels sink portions of their land masses and wreak havoc on their coastlines.

Morrison’s muted response was to praise Bainimarama’s “passion” and global leadership on the issue, but there was no offer of any assistance. His ruling Liberal-Nationals coalition is hopelessly split on the future of fossil fuels and has no coherent policy on clean energy or reducing gas emissions.

Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama at an international climate conference Denerau, Fiji, October 17, 2017. Photo: AFP Forum via DPA/ Christoph Sator

On the Vanuatu leg of his trip, Morrison did promise Australia would fund projects to mitigate the impact of climate change, but there is not much expectation this will happen. The Liberals will almost certainly lose the next election, opinion polls show, and the opposition Labor Party will no doubt pursue its own separate agenda.

Therein lies the crux of Australia’s Pacific problem, analysts say. It is hard to get any meaningful rapport with Pacific leaders when domestic politics block potential collaboration and cooperation.

“The inability of the Morrison government to align its Pacific islands policy announcements with domestic policies … constrains any genuine deepening of Australia’s relationships with Pacific Island countries,” said Jenny Hayward-Jones, an analyst with the Lowy Institute think tank.

Morrison was putting out political fires set by other government members, even as he was boarding the plane to Fiji. One came from Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, who declared that Islamist extremist Neil Prakash would be deported to Fiji after being stripped of his Australian citizenship because he had Fijian residency through his father.

Fiji said that wasn’t the case and refused to allow entry to Prakash, who is now being held in a Turkish jail. Suva was furious the announcement had been made without any consultation, and saw the affair as confirmation of Australia’s distant and patronizing approach to smaller Pacific nations.

Hayward-Jones said the clumsy handling of the issue was a mark on Australia’s diplomacy, noting it was “hardly in the national interest to send a convicted terrorist to Fiji at a time when Canberra is committing serious military and other financial resources to improve its security relationship with Suva.”

Peter Dutton at Parliament House in Canberra, March 2, 2017. Photo: AFP Forum via AAP/Mick Tsikas

Then, former international development minister Concetta Fierravanti-Wells tossed a symbolic grenade over Australia’s plan to set up a US$1.4 billion infrastructure fund to counter China’s growing economic influence in the Pacific paved by its US$1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative.

“Let’s be clear. A loan is a loan. It needs to be repaid. Given the Pacific’s debt is already about A$5.5 billion (US$4 billion), including A$2 billion (US$1.4 billion) to the Asian Development Bank and World Bank, and A$1.5 billion (US$1.08 billion] to Beijing, why are we even contemplating saddling our neighbors with more debt?” Fierravanti-Wells asked.

Morrison said two-thirds of the lending to the region was in the form of concessional finance, which usually means low-interest loans, with the rest disbursed as grants. China’s lending in the region, as elsewhere, has recently come under fire for creating sovereignty-eroding “debt traps.”

“One of the things we can do as a nation that has a partnership with Fiji and other nations in the Pacific is work on projects that are bankable, work on projects that actually can support that type of finance, that we don’t allow projects to go ahead in that program which can’t support those types of financing arrangements”, he said, adding that the step-up infrastructure program had been “incredibly well received” in the region.

Australia and New Zealand are also pushing the idea of a free trade pact, known as the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations Plus, that might eventually reduce the reliance of island nations on outside aid.

A Chinese restaurant owner in the Tongo capital of Nuku’alofa in a file photo. Photo: AFP/Torsten Blackwood

So far, however, only those two countries have ratified the deal, though it has been signed by Vanuatu, Samoa, Cook Islands, Kiribati, Solomon Islands, Nauru, Tuval, Niue and Tonga. Fiji has said it is ready to sign, but hasn’t done so. Papua New Guinea, the region’s other growth economy, has also stayed outside of the pact.

The opposition Labor Party hasn’t said whether it will continue with these policies if it wins this year’s election, or if it will devote any more time to Pacific affairs than the Liberals.

Morrison was the first Australian leader to visit Fiji since 2006 and the first to stop over in Vanuatu since 1990. Those past visits were to attend Pacific Islands Forum leaders meetings and significantly were not bilateral in nature.

Having skipped the most recent Pacific forum last September, Morrison is still learning the region’s ropes, but Pacific leaders know he probably won’t ever be back as national leader. They can only hope that there isn’t another shift of direction under his likely successor, Labor leader Bill Shorten, who rarely has much to say about their region.

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