Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has just wrapped up an historic three day visit to Pacific neighbors Vanuatu and Fiji. Australia’s been pushing what it calls a Pacific “step up” to counter China’s growing influence in the region.
At his first stop, in Vanuatu, Morrison told reporters, “when you step up, you have to show up.” He is the first Australian Prime Minster to make bilateral visits to Port Vila and Suva for more than a decade, and Morrison vowed Australia would no longer take the region for granted.
Dan McGarry, editor of the Vanuatu Daily Post, told RNZ Pacific that Morrison made a great impression on his counterpart. “Charlot Salwai is normally very reserved,” McGarry said, “but he was visibly animated, ebullient, even.”
According to McGarry, Prime Minister Salwai spontaneously raised the issue of kava, an important export for Vanuatu, and, to everyone’s surprise, Morrison responded positively. The mild narcotic is controversial in Australia and imports are currently limited to small amounts for personal use.
In Fiji, Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama challenged Morrison on climate change in general and coal in particular. “We cannot imagine,” he said, “how the interests of any single industry can be placed over the welfare of Pacific peoples.”
Bainimarama emphasized what he described as an existential threat to Pacific Island countries.
But he went on to praise the Pacific step up and the two countries announced a raft of agreements to bolster economic and diplomatic ties. Back in 2006, the military coup led by Bainimarama triggered a decade of acrimony, but Bainimarama said, “It’s clear more than ever that we can put this behind us . . . letting bygones be bygones.”