‘We are family’: Anthony Albanese meets Solomon Islands PM amid tension over China deal

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Anthony Albanese has met with the Solomon Islands prime minister in Suva to discuss their common interests of climate change and regional security issues, despite recent tensions between the two nations over China.

It is the first time that Albanese has met Manasseh Sogavare. The relationship between the countries has become increasingly tense since the signing of the controversial security pact with China earlier this year, but ahead of the meeting Albanese reiterated the importance of the relationship and said it “will be even better after this afternoon”.

The meeting comes on the first day of Albanese’s visit to Fiji to attend the Pacific Islands Forum, the most significant diplomatic event in the region. Australia is hoping to use the event to reset relationships with Pacific countries that it believes were badly damaged under the last government.

Sogavare greeted Albanese warmly, asking him for a hug, but alluded to tensions between the countries, telling him “We are family, there are issues [but] that makes family strong.”

Albanese said that during their meeting, which lasted about 15 minutes and was one of four bilateral meetings held by Australia on Wednesday afternoon, the leaders had discussed “our common interests that we have of climate change, dealing with the challenge but also regional security issues and other issues that we’ve been able to discuss.”

“The relationship between us is very important,” he said. “There is much more we can do to co-operate and to develop those relationships of trust and mutual understanding for our joint benefit as members of the region.”

Ahead of the meeting, Albanese addressed media and welcomed announcements made by the US vice-president, Kamala Harris, in a virtual meeting with Pacific leaders on Wednesday, in which she committed to US re-engagement with the region.

During the address, Harris acknowledged the diplomatic void that the US had left, saying: “We recognise that in recent years, the Pacific islands may not have received the diplomatic attention and support that you deserve. So today I am here to tell you directly: we are going to change that.”

Albanese agreed that the same criticism could be made of Australia’s relationship with the Pacific, calling Australian engagement with the region, particularly in relation to Solomon Islands, “a stuff-up; we hadn’t paid enough attention”.

The relationship between Australia and Solomon Islands has been testy in recent months in the wake of the signing of the China-Solomon Islands security deal, a draft of which was leaked online in late March.

The deal prompted concerns that China might be allowed to build a military base in Solomon Islands, which lies less than 2,000km from Australia’s east coast.

The Solomon Islands prime minister, Manasseh Sogavare, has ruled out a Chinese base and accused Australia of hypocrisy for wanting to be consulted about a bilateral deal, when Australia did not consult the Pacific before signing up to the Aukus arrangement.

“When Australia signed up to Aukus, we did not become theatrical or hysterical … about the implications this would have for us. We respected Australia’s decision,” Sogavare said in April.

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Albanese repeated his criticism of the former government for not sending the former prime minister Scott Morrison or former foreign minister Marise Payne to Solomon Islands to meet with Sogavare.

“I was quite frankly stunned that despite the briefings and foreshadowing of events in the region, all we saw was the former senator Zed Seselja make a visit far too late. We didn’t have that presence, prime ministerial or ministerial, and I think that was an error of judgment on Australia’s behalf at the time.”

The meeting is one of several bilateral meetings to be held on Wednesday between the new Australian prime minister and his Pacific counterparts. He will also meet with the leaders of Fiji, Federated States of Micronesia and Samoa.

Albanese will join the other leaders for the leaders’ retreat tomorrow, in which they are expected to discuss a range of issues, with the focus being on the three “c”s: climate change, Covid-19 and competition in the region.

But Albanese said climate change was the chief concern raised by Pacific leaders with his government and they were prepared to take action.

“We have some real challenges in this region; there’s no challenge more important than climate change,” he said.

Australia has been seen by Pacific leaders as a climate laggard and the last Pacific Islands Forum leaders’ retreat in 2019 descended into a standoff between Morrison and the rest of the leaders over Australia’s refusal to support strong language in the joint communique about climate change.

Fiji’s prime minister, Frank Bainimarama, and Tuvalu’s former prime minister Enele Sopoaga, both said in the aftermath of the 2019 forum that they were shocked and deeply offended by Morrison’s behaviour at the leaders’ meeting, with Bainimarama telling the Guardian Morrison was “very insulting and condescending” and could drive Pacific leaders closer to China.

Pacific leaders are openly expressing optimism about what the change in government in Australia will mean for their ability as a regional body to commit to more ambitious climate action.

“The messaging that’s coming from them is very positive,” said Simon Kofe, the foreign minister of Tuvalu. “We’re very hopeful that they will be on the same page as the Pacific.”

The Guardian

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