The Australian Government is making a push to re-establish itself as the dominant nation in the South Pacific, with fresh aid spending and official visits.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop is using a trip to Papua New Guinea and Tonga to remind Pacific nations that Australia’s neighbours are its biggest beneficiaries, ABC reports.
“We are the partner of choice, along with New Zealand, for the islands of the Pacific and that’s demonstrated here in PNG where we work across a whole range of areas,” she said on a trip to PNG’s remote New Ireland province.
The move comes as Australia’s regional role is challenged by the rise of China, and increasing investment from across Asia.
In PNG, the Pacific’s largest economy, Australian investment has stagnated while China’s is rapidly rising.
China has also been increasing aid while Australia cut its overall aid budget to record low levels, although it said the bulk of remaining funding is being focused on the Pacific.
The Governor of New Ireland, former prime minister Julius Chan, told Ms Bishop that the shine was coming off Australia and PNG’s relationship.
“I actually told Australia that it is very, crucially important that we keep the lustre between our friendship, which was established during the war years and thereafter, but now we’re losing that lustre,” he said.
Papua New Guinea Foreign Minister Rimbink Pato disagrees.
“Australia has not lost its focus,” he said.
“It’s true there may be some issues in terms of where the focus has been, but the world is globalising, there’s a greater need for focus, greater need for partnership and we’re working together as we always have.”
Ms Bishop used her trip to announce an extra $3.4 million for earthquake relief efforts in the PNG highlands, and also launched an aid program in New Ireland to build wells and toilets for women and girls in isolated villages and improve the province’s disaster readiness.
But that is the type of aid Australia has been moving away from as it focuses more on programs that promote economic growth.
In PNG, Australia has invested heavily in governance training, building a public service training complex and creating a Papua New Guinea Governance Facility.
“We want to ensure that we continue to see good governance, accountability and transparency in the relationship,” Ms Bishop said.