Climate change clouds Australia's Pacific charm offensive

Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison. (Sonny Tumbelaka, AFP)
Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison. (Sonny Tumbelaka, AFP)

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison's Pacific charm offensive went off course on Friday when he was forced to defend Fiji's accusations of inaction over climate change.

As Morrison pushed Canberra's message of a new Pacific focus with increased security and enhanced trade opportunities, he was called out by Fiji Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama, who turned the spotlight onto climate change.

Bainimarama said if Australia shifted away from its coal and mining industries it would help the survival of Pacific island countries threatened by rising sea levels.

"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," Bainimarama said in a speech late on Thursday.

"Rising seas threaten whole communities, forcing them to endure the trauma of relocating from land they've endured for generations.

"Fijian farmers are watching their crops perish in soil that has been spoiled by the heightened salinity that is associated with sea level rise."

Morrison, wrapping up a three-day visit to Fiji and Vanuatu, told reporters on Friday that Australia had commitments on emissions reductions in a "comprehensive response" to climate change, but he gave no specifics on clean energy plans.

"Well, we are already pursuing those policies in a way that I believe is consistent with what (Bainimarama) is expecting of Australia," the prime minister said.

"They were discussions we had yesterday, and we have been having very positive discussions about our future investments in this area."

Morrison stressed the importance of the Pacific to Australia at a time China is increasing its presence in the region.

He avoided any mention of China, but in a keynote speech in Suva he spoke of strengthening "defence and security co-operation" in the region.

He also reaffirmed Canberra's commitment to extending trade opportunities in the Pacific, where Australia is often viewed as an unwelcome big brother.

Australia has in the past been accused of paying little regard to the region, while China maintains it is promoting "peace, security and prosperity" and fostering "wide-ranging friendly and co-operative ties".

On the first visit by an Australian leader to Vanuatu and Fiji, Morrison said he was turning his nation's attention to the Pacific where it "should always have been".

He reiterated plans to establish five new diplomatic missions in the region and said Australia was also establishing an Office of the Pacific within the department of foreign affairs and trade "to give a loud and authoritative voice... following my commitments to step up our Pacific engagement".

Fiji's relationship with China blossomed after Bainimarama seized power in a 2006 coup. While Beijing did not comment on Fiji's political upheaval, Australia was highly critical.

However, relations between Canberra and Suva appeared to have normalised last August when Australia beat China for the right to redevelop Fiji's Blackrock Peacekeeping and Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Camp, which trains police and troops for missions.

Fiji military chief of staff for co-ordination, Captain Eronia Duaibe, said Australia's bid was successful because they took a "holistic" approach to construction, rather than the "bits and pieces" tabled by China.

Morrison said that once the facility is completed it "will provide an unprecedented level of assistance and safety to Fiji and the Pacific region".

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